Kawhi Leonard entered the 2011 NBA Draft with relatively little fanfare. A majority of the attention was directed towards Kyrie Irving, who went first overall to the Cavaliers, while Derrick Williams, Kemba Walker, Jimmer Fredette and the Morris twins were nice secondary stories.
Leonard had been projected by many to be drafted in the top 10, but he slipped to the 15th pick when the Pacers selected him. He was then traded to the Spurs for George Hill.
On the podium, minutes after his draft selection, Leonard appeared confused about the type of role he would play in Indiana until he was informed that he was traded to the Spurs.
“I had a meeting with them, and I got a great vibe from them”, Leonard said of the Spurs last June. “Just any team I’m on, I’m happy with right now. I’m just going in, trying to do whatever the coach wants me to do to make the team successful.”
On December 26, Leonard earned the trust of Gregg Popovich by scoring six points and six rebounds against the Grizzlies in 14 minutes. Since then, his playing time has steadily increased. He averaged 28.2 minutes in March, and 21.2 in April while contributing 11.1 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.7 steals.
He is far from an offensive threat, but in true San Antonio fashion, they haven’t asked him to step outside of his comfort zone. He fits very nicely into what Popovich has done this season, but there may come a time when his stature will be a problem. Leonard is too small to bang with a traditional power forward, and if asked to score more as a power forward, he won’t be nearly as efficient.
An injury to Manu Ginobili opened up a spot in the starting lineup in early January, and Leonard has handled the promotion well. He was featured a bit more offensively as a starter, attempting more shots (8.0 compared to his previous 4.9) in eight more minutes of playing time.
This new role involved playing tougher defense, hitting a few perimeter shots and crashing the boards. Leonard grabs a higher percentage of offensive rebounds than Tim Duncan (8.4% to 7.7%), rarely turns the ball over, and has a low usage rate for someone with an above-average PER (17.0). Leonard also has the second best defensive rating among San Antonio’s starters.
In this year’s playoffs, Leonard is averaging 8.2 points and 4.2 rebounds in a reserve role for the Spurs. His impact was felt in the series against the Clippers, in which he averaged 10.6 points and 6.3 rebounds. During that series, he was often matched up against Chris Paul for defensive purposes. Paul struggled with Leonard guarding him, averaging only 8 points and 8 assists; 9.7 points less than his averages against the Grizzlies in the first round, which stood at 17.7 points.
If the evolution of Leonard continues at this current rate, he can potentially be seen as this generation’s Bruce Bowen.
Under Popovich’s leadership, Leonard is on his way to NBA stardom, and continues to validate why he was the steal of the 2011 NBA Draft with each passing game.