By taking forward Jae Crowder with the 34th overall selection in the 2012 NBA Draft, the Dallas Mavericks now employ a versatile athlete and above average defender. If that sounds like someone else you know, look no further than Kawhi Leonard, the player who Crowder will most resemble at the end of the 2012-2013 season.
Crowder is exactly the kind of hard-working, defensive-minded player that coach Rick Carlisle will quickly fall in love with. It's the same kind of marriage that worked for Gregg Popovich in San Antonio, as he boasted the only top four seeded playoff team in either conference that started a rookie.
The San Antonio Spurs struck gold with their acquisition for Leonard, the 15th pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, trading away guard George Hill for the guard/forward from San Diego State.
Dallas also used a trade to net themselves Crowder, the rugged combo forward from Marquette who was the 2012 Big East player of the year after averaging 17.5 points, 8.4 rebounds, 2.5 steals and 1.0 block on 50 percent shooting.
Leonard far exceeded expectations on both ends of the floor in his rookie season, averaging 7.9 points, 5.1 rebounds and 1.3 steals. He was also a member of the All-NBA Rookie first team.
Before making comparisons to the two youngsters, it's important to understand some background on both.
Leonard has played almost everywhere on the court for the Spurs. Although his primary position is small forward, he sees time at both shooting guard and power forward in different lineups, as his versatility on both ends allows Pop to mix and match as necessary.
Coming out of San Diego State, concerns about his role in transition and behind the arc limited his potential as an offensive threat. According to DraftExpress, he also wasn't a great isolation player, and needed to work on his left-hand dribble.
In a true testament to work ethic, Leonard came in and put those worries to bed. He shot 38 percent from the three-point line as a spot-up shooter, and despite San Antonio's lethargic offense, he was able to push the pace when Tony Parker or Gary Neal led the way.
He's also now the team's best defender, chasing around elite offensive players every night. He's at it again during the preseason, as noted by San Antonio Express-News insider Jeff McDonald.
Kawhi Leonard gets a reprieve on LeBron duty. Instead, he gets to spend the day chasing Ray Allen through about a zillion screens.— Jeff McDonald (@JMcDonald_SAEN) October 20, 2012
Here's a look at some of Leonard's rookie highlights.
Defense is one of the reasons Popovich has called him a better version of Bruce Bowen. The head coach has also gone so far to call him "the future face of the Spurs" this summer during a Q&A session on NBA.com.
Here's his quote about Leonard's second season.
"I think he’s going to be a star. And as time goes on, he’ll be the face of the Spurs I think. At both ends of the court, he is really a special player. And what makes me be so confident about him is that he wants it so badly. He wants to be a good player, I mean a great player. He comes early, he stays late, and he’s coachable, he’s just like a sponge."
Putting Leonard in the same class as names like George Gervin, David Robinson and Tim Duncan is certainly high praise, considering the close-knit nature of the fan base in San Antonio, and the success they've had over the past decade.
With all that in mind, we'll move to Crowder, who has a chance to seize every bit of playing time he wants on this Dallas team. Although they've added youth at other positions, small and power forward are still wide open, especially with Dirk Nowitzki nursing his knee after arthroscopic surgery.
He's been every bit the player advertised during preseason and more, highlighted by a 20-point game in only 15 minutes of court time earlier in the preseason. He's also been an excellent defender, as noted by NBA.com's statistics Twitter feed.
. @dallasmavs 2nd round pick Jae Crowder ranks 2nd among all players in stls (2.4spg) Crowder made 1st preseason start Sat., scoring 15pts— NBA.com/Stats (@nbastats) October 22, 2012
An early concern has to be Carlisle's faith in the young forward. During his time in Dallas, he's shown no propensity to stick with developing talent, and you could argue he's stunted the growth of Dominique Jones and Rodrigue Beaubois.
Granted, the Mavericks were dealing with a veteran roster with players all chasing a championship. The coaching staff and fans wouldn't have it any other way, but it's left the future of this roster somewhat clouded.
However, it appears the rookie is quickly dispelling those issues, as reinforced by Mavs.com writer Bryan Gutierrez.
Carlisle on what Jae Crowder brings at the 4 spot: "I just like him on the floor." Carlisle loves him as a basketball player.— Bryan Gutierrez (@BallinWithBryan) October 22, 2012
If you need any further reinforcement, look no further than the team's Monday night game against the New Orleans Hornets. Starting at power forward, Crowder was thrust into defending rookie and No. 1 overall draft pick Anthony Davis for most of the evening.
He responded by holding Davis to a paltry six points on 2-of-12 shooting, while finishing with 12 points, four rebounds and four assists of his own. Seven of those points came in the closing quarter, as Dallas was able to hold on for their third win of the preseason.
While playing different positions and for coaches with different basketball minds, these two could soon begin a journey of comparisons over the course of their NBA career. Based on production, Leonard was one of only a handful of rookies that made an immediate impact, and did so on a playoff team.
Crowder will be the only second-round draft pick from this year's class in the starting lineup if Carlisle holds true to his preseason selections. That falls in line with Popovich's controversial decision to use Leonard over Richard Jefferson, the proven veteran that got a new contract before the 2011-12 season.
There's more than enough evidence to suggest Crowder will be the rookie that surprises the most from this year's class. His hard-nosed, tough style of play has the coaching staff taking notice. By the end of the season, I think Crowder, not Shawn Marion, will get the task of guarding elite offensive players.
That's exactly the role Leonard plays in San Antonio. On offense, he reaps the benefit of having Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili breaking down the defense. A lethal spot-up shooter down the stretch of his rookie season, Leonard is becoming a player you can't help off of to defend penetration.
In Dallas' new-look offense, O.J. Mayo and Darren Collison are expected to create offense off the dribble. That bodes well for Crowder to spot up and shoot the three, as he's a confident player with no reservations toward taking an open look.
We'll have to see if the summer league and preseason success carry over to the regular season for Crowder. But he's certainly earned a role in the interim, and next June, I believe he will have NBA GMs and fans raving that he is pivotal piece of the future Dallas Mavericks puzzle.
Ethan Grant is a Breaking News Team writer and featured columnist for the Dallas Mavericks at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for jokes, NBA analysis and the occasional personal anecdote.