Las Vegas, Nev. –When it’s 113 degrees outside, the last thing I would want to do is stand in the middle of the blazing heat rays; especially just moments after getting hounded by the 12 of the best basketball players on the planet whose goal this week has not been to beat the select team, but rather to prevent them from breathing as they attempt to bring the ball up the floor. But there was Kawhi Leonard, right at the peak of daytime on one of the hottest days of the year in Las Vegas, stopping to sign autographs and pose for pictures for the 30 or so fans gathered behind the aluminum railing that led up to the select team’s bus.
Leonard is in Vegas as a part of a select group of players chosen to help scrimmage against our country’s National Team as they prepare for the Summer Olympics. It’s an honor that each and every player relishes and an opportunity that helps them improve their games in a couple of ways: 1) Going head-to-head with Kobe, LeBron, Durant, Carmelo and everybody else in competitive practices day after day gives them a chance to learn from and compete against the best, and 2) Establishing a good relationship with Team USA brass can help a player’s chances of making an Olympic team in the future.
“It’s a great experience,” Leonard said. “Going against the top 15 guys in the world. I’m just trying to learn a few things from them. See how they worked to get to where they are.”
Leonard is an unassuming and somewhat diffident person. He understands the value of being in this situation but doesn’t let it affect his outlook on himself. Leonard is not only down to earth, as his toasty autograph session suggests, he’s also modest. When asked how he thought he compared to fellow super utility guy Andre Iguodala, who is one of the 12 players that will compete in London for Team USA, Leonard could only say that he hopes he “stays in the league as long as (Iguodala) has.”
Leonard’s unobtrusive approach is likely a product of his uncertain path to the pros. Leonard said “a lot of patience” has been key in making it as far as he has.
“It’s been a long process,” Leonard continued. “Nobody really thought I would get drafted coming out of high school to a mid-major like San Diego State. Just a lot of hardwork.”
Hard work is something Leonard is used to at this point. He was thrown into the fire as a rookie, asked to do seemingly impossible jobs like stopping Kevin Durant or Kobe Bryant, and he worked his tail off to make his presence felt. Of course, that was somewhat expected from Leonard coming out of college. The 6-foot-7 forward with a 7-foot-3 wingspan and hands so big that they could literally grip my head was compared to a modern day Shawn Marion as a draft prospect and defense was his calling card. But once he got to San Antonio, Leonard delivered more than the Spurs ever could have expected, dedicating countless summer hours to studying film of the creaky jumper he had in college and to the subsequent gym time needed to correct his form. The development of his shot earned Leonard the respect of all of the suits in San Antonio and it has made him a perfect fit for the Spurs’ new offensive onslaught.
“I’m just a role guy,” Leonard said, his tone understating his value while his words reflected the truth. “They wanted me to be a role guy. We had three great guys that could score the ball on the team last year. Everything I did on the court was what they wanted me to do. They wanted me to knock down open shots and drive to the basket when I could.”
Leonard is a devoted understudy, a player who has eluded the stardom his potential could fetch for the less esteemed burden of doing only what is asked of him. If you’ve seen Leonard on the floor for even a second then you’ve seen his entire array of emotions — as talented a player as he is, Leonard wouldn’t fare well in Hollywood.
Kawhi always has a blank stare on his face, almost one of dejection, that remains the same whether he’s just connected on a big three or relinquished a basket to the opposition’s best scorer. More than anyone else on the team, Leonard acts as a symbolic figure of Gregg Popovich’s revered and successful process oriented approach. No results phase Leonard. Successes and failures are just that: moments in a game that are either positive or negative for your team. Pop doesn’t believe those moments should impact what occurs on the next possession, and thus, any premature display of emotion is the equivalent to dropping the confetti after just one state’s primary results are revealed.
He’s only worn the silver and black for one season, but Leonard seems to be thoroughly entrenched in Pop’s teachings. While some players on the select team see this stage as an opportunity to advertise the skills that their respective team concepts preclude them from using, Leonard remains within himself. Going out of his way to show the Team USA coaching staff that he can shoot off the dribble or handle the ball at the top of the key isn’t on Leonard’s docket. He’s not interested in turning his trial here into one of those “What happens here, stays here” commercials where he betrays his own believes for the sake of fun. Kawhi Leonard is here to be Kawhi Leonard and to do what is asked of him. His humble nature notwithstanding, his attendance here provides a great look behind the Spurs’ veil.
Whereas the Triangle Offense, the most decorated “system” in basketball history, was a brilliant schematic invention designed to maximize its denizens’ skills by way of ingenious floor spacing, Pop’s ideology combines virtuoso tactics with bridled conjecture. The term “winning culture” is loosely thrown around nowadays and while it is spot-on in certain cases (Oklahoma City and Miami have rosters full of players committed to winning above all else), no team defines that appellation more than San Antonio. The Spurs don’t just preach how joyous the attainment of success is, they provide a sophisticated aroma that puts their players in an environment in which their terms of disclosure are inescapable without facing the wrath of Pop. When you’re acquired by the Spurs, you don’t just come to San Antonio to be on a basketball team. No, you come to San Antonio to join a faction of frugal and furtive men; almost like joining a family.
With all due respect to the Admiral, San Antonio’s golden years as a franchise have come with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili at their peaks. Those reluctant warriors have yet to let those golden years come to an end, but soon — perhaps after one or two final runs — the Spurs will inevitably undergo a facelift. Unless you are the Lakers, who seem to shift from one legendary era to another in the blink of an eye, this process is normally a laborious one; one that combines the sadness of losing with the unavoidable anguish of remembering the past. But the Spurs, by way of front office acumen and Leonard’s own pursuit of ascendancy, may have found themselves a player capable of bridging the gap between aeons just as Duncan did with David Robinson.
Leonard is, in some ways, an extension of Duncan. Not as naturally talented but just as placidly competitive, just as eager to contribute, just as willing to take a step back for the greater good of the team, just as willing to be the linchpin of a defensive unit, just as willing to be himself no matter what kind of role he plays.
As currently constructed, Leonard is not close to the complete game changer that Duncan was as a youngster, but he is one of the most efficient offensive players in basketball and someone who cares about defense, a passion lost on many young players in this day and age. Leonard will, of course, need to expand his game, but I think last season taught us that adding elements to his game will not be something Leonard struggles with. Leonard, a player whose NBA prospects were all but a sure thing as he committed to a mid-major coming out of high school, is adept at adaptation and driven from within to do what is asked of him.
What will be most exciting about watching Leonard grow over the next years is that no matter how ubiquitous he continues to be on the floor, he’ll remain bound off of it. No matter how well he refines his game or how big his reputation balloons, Kawhi Leonard will always been Kawhi Leonard.
And it is absolutely fitting that he is a San Antonio Spur.