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San Antonio Rookie Kawhi Leonard Can Use Former Spur as Defensive Role Model

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San Antonio Rookie Kawhi Leonard Can Use Former Spur as Defensive Role Model
Harry How/Getty Images

Rudy Gay tried a series of fakes to lure Kawhi Leonard into shooting fouls that far too many first-year players want to commit. The Spurs’ rookie, however, refused to bite.

The result: an airball that would not have fallen more off course if a windstorm engulfed Beale Street and ripped open the FedEx Forum roof.

The penurious defensive stand by the highest San Antonio draft pick, since management selected Tim Duncan first overall in 1997, highlighted the squad’s best road performance of this truncated, blink-and-you-might-miss-it 2011-2012 campaign. One night after dropping an exhausting overtime affair in Dallas, San Antonio harangued Memphis in a gritty 83-73 victory.

The Grizzlies shot 37 percent, and that number would have been lower if not for an anemic fourth quarter from the gassed opponents. Gay suffered through his worst outing since a trio of donuts his rookie year, missing all seven of his shot attempts and only scoring one point.

Richard Jefferson and other teammates helped stymie Gay, but Monday’s brickfest was the latest example of Leonard flashing and flaunting his defensive fangs.

The latest 20-year-old kid to crack Gregg Popovich’s rotation competes with venom in his veins and suffocation on his mind.

Leonard’s NBA education continues tonight, when the Spurs host the explosive Rockets. He figures to spend substantial time covering ace shooter Kevin Martin.

Whether Houston will bring any defense of its own—a disgraceful 120-108 defeat Monday at Toyota Center to Rick Adelman’s Minnesota Timberwolves makes that a prescient question—remaining uncertain. The Rockets, though, will schlep plenty of offensive prowess to the AT&T Center in the final Houston-San Antonio matchup of the regular season.

Few scorers possess a stroke as effortless as Martin’s. He wears 12 on his back and sometimes shoots as many free throws in a joust.

That number signifies something else for the Spurs’ newest pest in training. He has drawn comparisons to a beloved mainstay who set a lofty standard for harassing a foe with All-Star facility. The ceiling for Leonard, unlike that of his sedulous predecessor, is undetermined.

Bruce Bowen was the most talented Spur on the floor—on the rare, early October night he started alongside Jacque Vaughn, Darius Washington and Fabricio Oberto.

Washington and Oberto, though, might protest that declaration. The former drove through traffic to the hoop in one 48-minute span more than Bowen did in a 16-year professional career.

For once, the 6’7” defensive specialist, flanked by a cast of benchwarmers and training-camp invitees from the D-League, boasted more physical ability than the teammates with whom he shared the court.

The Spurs outlasted the Golden State Warriors in a meaningless preseason affair that was most notable for Washington’s near triple-double. Defending champion San Antonio sported a steep average age, and Popovich used that evening to gauge whether the kids hustling for an NBA-level job could do enough to survive his inevitable camp cuts.

Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Michael Finley watched from the sidelines. The head coach caught the action from a suite upstairs and let his lead assistant take the reigns.

The team Mike Budenholzer fielded for that listless contest, with some luck, might have won a D-League playoff series.

Washington, despite his tremendous efforts, was assigned to the Austin Toros a month later and waived after a short stint with the Spurs.

Recalling that preseason game took considerable effort. It stands to reason, then, that few will remember that Leonard logged just seven minutes in a nail-biting 104-102 road victory last week at New Orleans. Those who glance at the Spurs' 2011-2012 record years from now will likely not care how the team fared Jan. 23, 2012.

The final win total and postseason performance are often all that matter.

San Antonio announced prior to its road excursion in the Big Easy it would retire Bowen’s No. 12 after a March 21 home game. Contributors with modest six-point, two-rebound and one-assist averages tend to hang up jerseys in the laundry room, not an arena’s rafters.

Bowen will deservedly become one of the exceptions, as the first honoree of the post-David Robinson championship core. The eight-time All-Defense selection—he earned first-team honors five times, second-team honors three times and recorded several top-three finishes in Defensive Player of the Year voting—spent his formative years in San Antonio and embodied the best qualities of the Popovich-era Spurs.

The front office plucked him from the supposed free-agent scrap heap in 2001, envisioning him as a consistent nuisance for opposing stars. Bowen played in Europe, performed frequent mop-up duty and turned 30 before gaining any traction as one of the toughest, grimiest one-on-one defenders in league history.

Pundits reacted to last week’s news with predictable wisecracks and skepticism.

South Florida Sun Sentinel writer Ira Winderman suggested, perhaps in jest, the Miami Heat should commemorate its own Bowen, Keith Askins. Other writers and analysts expressed puzzlement and antipathy.

Heat history does not include the version of Bowen worth a jersey retirement. No other NBA franchise’s lineage features a comparable athlete.

That makes invoking the Lakers' practice of raising only Hall of Fame players’ numbers an irrelevant, pointless and frivolous exercise. Peter Holt’s silver and black model never operated like the Jerry Buss purple and gold machine. Each owner valued winning above all else, yet the system forced Holt to approach title contention from a different, more difficult angle.

The basketball gods bequeathed heaping helpings of luck on both organizations. The Spurs secured the top draft pick twice in 10 years, when Robinson and Duncan were the consensus best available players. The Lakers selected Magic Johnson first when a team in pursuit of a trophy could still pick its cake of choice and eat it, too.

The Showtime epoch in the 1980s had something to do with a teenage Kobe Bryant seeking and approving his employment switch from Charlotte to L.A. on 1996 draft day, when Lakers GM-legend Jerry West was one of the few who saw star power in a braggadocio-infested, athletic brat.

The Hornets picked Bryant 13th then dealt him for Vlade Divac. Bowen, by contrast, was not drafted and spent his first eight years drifting from one destination to the next.

His career and the Spurs changed the moment he arrived in the Alamo City.

He came to define a program heralded for unearthing vital rotation pieces against the odds.

Once a perennial vagabond, Bowen became the ultimate pain in the butt for marquee talents allergic to physicality. Even some rare shot jackers who espoused it, dreaded confrontations with him.

Bryant has laughed off most of the worker bees assigned to slow him since his transcendent rise alongside Shaquille O’Neal. Bowen, though, commanded the Black Mamba’s respect. Bryant relished the challenge of manufacturing buckets against such a practiced, prepared defender.

Others eschewed public praise in favor of vitriol and displeasure.

Ray Allen and Amar’e Stoudemire viewed Bowen as a rule-bending menace. Steve Nash’s groin, if it could speak, would offer similar condemnation.

Too often, though, allegations of dirty tactics reeked of desperation. When foes could not figure out how to circumvent or neutralize Bowen’s resistance, they resorted to whining about it.

If he crossed the line, he deserved credit for studying and understanding the rules enough to do it while watchful referees glued themselves to his hip, like he did to Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James.

Leonard has a lot to learn before he can ever approach that level of consistency. Kevin Durant, for one, breezed through one of the most efficient nights of career when matched against Leonard in a lopsided early January tilt, needing just five made baskets to reach 21 points.

Vince Carter and Jason Terry abused Leonard early and often as the Mavericks built a lead that swelled to 18 before the Spurs bench mounted a spirited comeback effort.

The world’s best athletes can still produce under duress. Such is the life of a defensive specialist.

Bowen earned plaudits and an invite to the Tonight Show with Jay Leno because he “limited” James to 25 points per game in the 2007 NBA Finals.

The self-proclaimed King opened that series with a 4-of-16 dud.

The bulk of the credit went to LeBruce—a hustle hound who lived below the rim.

Popovich joked two weeks ago that his roster finally included a player capable of dunking.

“He did it today in practice, and three of us just about fell over,” he quipped.

Was the coach referencing Leonard? The San Diego State product has flushed more slams in one month than Bowen did in 16 years.

The omnipresent chip resting on Bowen’s broad shoulders guided him on his expedition from unheralded, discarded forward to unshakeable annoyance.

He honed his willingness to defend and one discernable offensive skill—a knack for knocking down corner three-pointers—into a San Antonio career that often saw him closing out critical playoff victories alongside future Hall of Famers Duncan, Ginobili and Parker.

If Leonard hopes to someday accomplish that feat, he should borrow some tricks from Bowen’s bag, filled with endless stoicism.

The latter had a way of shrugging off perceived failure. He understood his opponents could disregard his best efforts and torch him for 40 points. That never stopped him from trying.

Leonard, the 15th pick in the June draft, can only learn the unpleasant, often unrewarding nature of his job by tackling it again and again as Bowen did.

To acquire Leonard’s rights, the Spurs parted ways with George Hill, Popovich’s professed “favorite player.”

GM R.C. Buford called jettisoning the IUPUI standout one of the franchise’s toughest decisions to date.

Hill, also a fan favorite, supplied boundless energy on both ends but flopped in the team’s first-round pratfall versus Memphis. He played his way off the roster.

As much as the brass loved him, his poor postseason showing, which followed a dazzling one the previous year, made him easier to trade.

The 6’3” guard cultivated a confidence as a Spur that convinced him he could handle every defensive assignment from Durant to Dirk Nowitzki. Hill’s efforts yielded mixed results.

It didn’t help 61-win San Antonio’s shoddy defense that a combo guard was trying to do what the roll call’s lone true small forward Richard Jefferson could not. Steve Novak played more than Tiago Splitter in a number of late season dates.

When the Brazilian banger did see daylight, Novak frequently occupied the other frontcourt spot. That presaged disastrous defensive results.

The Grizzlies exposed the Spurs’ need for additional size inside and on the wing. Splitter’s emergence alone beefed up a frontcourt that has often lacked the imposing mojo that permeated the title teams. Drafting Leonard now looks like a sensible, terrific move, even though it meant sending Hill to the upstart Indiana Pacers.

Popovich and Buford also believed Leonard could navigate a lockout better than most rookies. The front office knew what was coming and wanted to draft a contributor who would not need the Summer League or the constant barking of coaches to stay in shape.

That discipline shows. It matters.

Leonard’s evolution continued Monday when he checked Gay. He also added 12 points and 10 rebounds.

The games come fast and furious for everyone in the NBA. For Leonard, difficult man-to-man assignments seem to come his way at warp speed.

Gay on Monday, Martin tonight and Durant this weekend.

A healthy dose of dauntlessness will serve Leonard well as he tries to fill the shoes Bowen once did.

Class is in session for the rook. The job description may sound less than glamorous, but if he ever needs proof his designated task is plausible and fulfilling, he need only look up after March 21.

Martin, with 12 on his back and an indefensible touch, visits the AT&T Center tonight. Houston travels to San Antonio twice a year. The No. 12 that Leonard should emulate will soon hang in the rafters. Forever.

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