Why Kawhi Leonard Is the Next Star Small Forward in the NBA

Roy Burton@thebslineContributor IOctober 8, 2012

Mar 17, 2012; Dallas, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs small forward Kawhi Leonard (2) warms up before the game against the Dallas Mavericks at the American Airlines Center. The Mavericks defeated the Spurs 106-99. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-US PRESSWIRE

78 games.

It only took head coach Gregg Popovich a total of 78 games to boldly proclaim that Spurs' small forward Kawhi Leonard is destined for greatness.

"I think he's going to be a star," wrote Popovich in response to a question submitted by a fan on Spurs.com. "And as time goes on, he'll be the face of the Spurs, I think."

Under most circumstances, that would be a pretty heavy burden to place on the shoulders of any 21-year-old, especially one who was 11th on his team in scoring as a rookie. After all, the men who have served as the cornerstones of the Spurs' franchise over the past two decades—David Robinson and Tim Duncan—are two of the 50 greatest players who have ever picked up a basketball.

So it's clear that Popovich sees something special in Leonard. Otherwise, the two-time NBA Coach of the Year wouldn't have declared during the Spurs' media day in early October that the team would "love [Leonard] to be a Spur for life."

The infatuation with Leonard goes far beyond the San Antonio city limits. Leonard came in at No. 95 in the latest edition of ESPN's NBA player rankings, and USA Basketball selected Leonard to be part of the Select Team that scrimmaged against the U.S. Men's Olympic Team in July.

So why is there so much adulation for a player who averaged 7.9 points per game last year? Well, for starters, Leonard is one of the most efficient players in the entire league.

Don't be fooled by Leonard's pedestrian scoring average during his rookie season: According to Synergy Sports, the 6'7" small forward averaged an impressive 1.06 points per possession in 2011-12. Leonard also finished among the top 50 in true shooting percentage (.573), and his 118.9 offensive rating last season was seventh-best in the NBA.

Even more impressive is the fact that Leonard's shooting percentages in his first year with the Spurs (.493 FG%, .376 3PT%) are far better than what he shot during his two years at San Diego State (.449 FG%, .250 3PT). Leonard's commitment to working on his jump shot during the lockout paid immediate dividends, and his improvement is tangible evidence that the young star is willing to do whatever it takes to excel at the pro level.

With Leonard's immense ability also comes a large dose of humility. Much like Duncan, Leonard's demeanor is usually at an even keel—never too high, never too low. He simply goes out and does his job night in and night out without the need for much fanfare.

"You see Kawhi, but you don't hear him," said Team USA assistant coach Nate McMillan in an interview with the San Antonio Express-News. "He'll make the right play and he just moves on to the next play."

It seems as though Leonard has been making the right play ever since the Spurs acquired him in a 2011 draft day trade with the Indiana Pacers. San Antonio sent emerging young point guard George Hill to Indiana in exchange for Leonard, and it's doubtful that the Spurs have regretted their decision since.

The future for Kawhi Leonard is now, and by the end of the 2012-13 campaign, Leonard will fully assume the mantle as the league’s next big thing at the small forward position. He still has plenty of work to do defensively, but with his freakishly long wingspan (7'3") and his ability to cause havoc in the passing lanes (1.3 steals per game in 2011-12), it shouldn't take long for him to be a terror on both ends of the court.

"We're wild with anticipation," said Popovich. "We can't wait to see what he's going to be like next season."

Neither can the rest of us.