Why Rookie Kawhi Leonard Will Be Crucial to the Spurs Success Come Playoff Time

Avi JerushalmyContributor IIJanuary 18, 2012

Kawhi Leonard has quickly emerged as a starter for the Spurs
Kawhi Leonard has quickly emerged as a starter for the Spurs

In an abbreviated season due to the lockout, youth is key.

With the most grueling schedule in years, older teams are forced to give days off to aging veterans.

The team that has been affected most is the San Antonio Spurs.  With aging stars like Tim Duncan, Richard Jefferson and Manu Ginobili on the decline and banged up, they needed an injection of youth into their lineup.

That boost has come just in time thanks to Kawhi Leonard, their rookie forward.

Leonard was the 15th pick in the 2011 draft by the Indiana Pacers, but his rights were immediately shipped to San Antonio for George Hill, a talented young guard who the Spurs had been grooming as possibly their future point guard.

Leonard was a star at San Diego State last year, leading the Aztecs to the Sweet 16.  His leadership ability and impressive rebounding skills for his size landed him on the radar of many NBA scouts.  The Spurs saw an opportunity to acquire him and pulled the trigger on a risky trade.

The bold move has paid off big time.

After not getting much playing time during the first week of the season, Leonard has jumped onto the scene with six straight double-digit scoring efforts.  The 20-year-old has already earned a starting role, and leads the team in steals per game as well.

His youth and athleticism have been crucial to the success of the Spurs (9-5), who are off to a significantly better start than many had predicted before the abridged season.  Leonard surely deserves to be acclaimed.

Leonard has been steadily improving throughout the first few weeks of his career, and should continue to develop into his own at the NBA level.  His versatility enables him to play multiple positions, and his superb defensive ability allows him to play much more minutes than most rookies.  The fact that he can alleviate the burden for their older players makes him extremely valuable to the team. 

The forward has gotten off to an encouraging start this season, but his greatest impact will be felt come playoff time.  

The downfall of most teams with an aging core is fatigue, especially in a rigorous season like this, but with the fresh legs of the 20-year-old rookie, the Spurs will have a weapon that they haven't had during their recent playoff appearances: a young, developing star.  

Last season, the Spurs were the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, however they broke down in the playoffs and were eliminated in stunning fashion by the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round.  The youth of the Grizzlies was too much for San Antonio to handle.  The Spurs hope Leonard's fresh legs can be part of the solution to the problem exposed by Memphis this past year.  

Eventually, San Antonio should get a huge boost if top scorer Manu Ginobili is ready by the time the playoffs begin.  If the core remains healthy, and Leonard continues to grow as a player, this team certainly has what it takes to make a run.

Kawhi Leonard may be just a rookie, but in the playoffs he could be the difference between a first-round exit and a deep playoff run.