Almost half of the NBA voted against Kawhi Leonard in 2011.
After racing up the draft board during pre-draft workouts, when draft night arrived, team after team opted for someone other than Leonard until the Pacers selected him with the 15th pick. Of course, they then flipped that pick to San Antonio in exchange for George Hill.
Is it any surprise that it was the Spurs who trusted what they had seen in Leonard when other teams didn't?
Nine months later, Gregg Popovich and San Antonio's front office are happy that they trusted their instincts when it came to the 6'6" swingman. He's rewarded their belief with energy, effort and results. In 24 minutes per game, Leonard is averaging 8.2 points and 5.3 rebounds per game while shooting 49.7 percent from the floor. He's also connecting on 37.7 percent of his attempts from deep—something no one saw coming.
Leonard's defense and versatility were the things that got him noticed a season ago. The offense is an added bonus, one many teams didn't think he'd have. Have you ever looked at Leonard? The size of his hands has been well-documented, creating concerns about whether he'd be able to develop a reliable shot.
Thanks to a lot of hard work, he has.
That's another thing about Leonard, probably one of the things that the Spurs loved about him: He works hard. Really, really hard. He's very much about going about his business, and his business is basketball. There are no outside distractions or secondary pulls on Leonard. He simply wants to continue to get better and help his team.
When you watch Leonard play, the thing that jumps at you is just how hard he works on every possession. Offense, defense, it doesn't matter. While most players get an extra burst of energy when they've got the ball in their hands, Leonard has one gear and it's always dialed, whether he's chasing his opponent around the perimeter, sneaking in to grab an offensive rebound or is handling the ball, ready to make something happen.
Leonard plays with the heart and hustle usually reserved for players who weren't gifted with the athleticism that he has. This is a great thing.
Think ugly duckling syndrome. While most players were well aware of their talents from an early age, Leonard had to be the underdog. He was underrated despite the talent, work ethic and potential. Now that he's made it to the big stage and has a coach and teammates who believe in him, he's still working as hard as the guy who wants to make it and knows that nothing is promised.
The Spurs were smart to grab him when the opportunity presented itself. They were also lucky that so many other teams failed to recognize the talent that already exists with Leonard, as well as the potential that remains.