General manager R.C. Buford and the San Antonio Spurs didn't draft Kawhi Leonard in 2011 for his shooting ability.
The San Diego State product was expected to be more of a hustle guy, a strong perimeter defender who rebounded far better than your average small forward—to the tune of 10.6 boards a game as a sophomore Aztec.
Comparisons to Bruce Bowen were to be expected.
A nearly 38 percent clip from behind the arc was not.
Leonard quickly proved that he was the Spurs' kind of a guy—a professional, hard-working rookie who'd trade flash for results any day. He puts his physical tools to good use and reminds you instantly of a gritty swingman like Gerald Wallace, only with more finesse and a higher ceiling.
Leonard's hard work paid off, too, impressing head coach Gregg Popovich so much that he started 39 regular-season games and all 14 playoff games. It isn't easy for youngsters to earn Pop's trust and even harder to get him to say things like, “We’d love him to be a Spur for life.”
This isn't the first time we've heard that kind of flattery (via USA Today's J. Michael Falgoust):
"Kawhi guards the toughest perimeter player on the other team. He's got great length. A great body. Has an inclination to do it. He enjoys the role. He's more gifted than Bruce, skillwise," Popovich said. "Once we figured that out we opened up for him and he worked very hard on his shot, especially his three-point shot. (Assistant coach) Chip England has spent a lot of time with him on that so he's got confidence. He lets it fly. He's not Chris Mullin yet but we don't mind when he takes his open threes."
Those open threes quickly became a staple of Leonard's game, the perfect complement for Tony Parker's drive-and-kick sensibilities and key to staying on the floor for a team that prizes floor spacing so much. The Spurs rely on that corner trey as much as any club, and Leonard made a bunch of them.
And that stout perimeter defense gave San Antonio something it desperately needed to keep pace with teams boasting wing scorers like Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant.
Nobody is declaring Leonard an all-time great stopper just yet, but you'd have to rank his defense right there with the New York Knicks' Iman Shumpert among 2011 draftees. He's quick, active and physical. That's something the Spurs were missing throughout the Richard Jefferson experiment.
Still, there's room for improvement—the kind of improvement that can turn a guy into a well-rounded star.
Leonard has to become a better ball-handler, especially in tight quarters. Though he's adept at pushing the tempo off missed shots in the open floor, his slashing game has for the most part been limited to the occasional baseline drive.
He also doesn't have much of a mid-range game, especially off the dribble.
Adding those kind of weapons to his scoring arsenal should make him a capable second or third option in time. As Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili move on, he could even become the team's go-to scorer.
For now, he'll settle for helping this veteran team win in any way he can. The Spurs still have enough talent that Leonard can take his time growing into a more robust role.
Just don't be surprised to see him taking more than six shots a game this season. Popovich likes to spread the love on offense, but he also wants his best scorers to be aggressive (as we've seen on a number of occasions when Parker fires at will).
No one thought we'd be describing Leonard as one of the Spurs' best scorers, but he's quickly growing accustomed to surpassing expectations.
Don't expect him to become much of a star? Just wait.
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