He's only a sophomore, but Kawhi Leonard is already being labeled as the next great Spur.
With the Big Three era in San Antonio gradually coming to a close, the Spurs organization has begun preparations for the franchise's future.
The beloved Tim Duncan has signed on for his final few years, and veteran Manu Ginobili's clock is ticking as well. Tony Parker, the final member of the team's celebrated triumvirate, still has many good years ahead of him, but in no way can you classify the seasoned guard as "young".
The Spurs' beloved trio-run dynasty is slowly withering away, paving way for a new era to begin in San Antonio. However, their reliable dominance made it hard for the Spurs to find a new star, with late picks becoming the norm during the draft, and high payrolls giving the team little flexibility during free agency.
As a result, many questioned the Spurs' ability to remain a top team in the future, with so little to look forward to.
Leonard burst onto the scene, turning several heads in the process. Within weeks of his NBA debut, Leonard drew comparisons to Spurs' great, Bruce Bowen. His expectations were then raised after coach Gregg Popovich stated his belief that Leonard would one day surpass Bowen from a talent standpoint.
His professionalism, unparalleled work-ethic and natural ability gave the Spurs fans hope that they had found themselves a successor to Duncan, Ginobili and Parker—someone to guide the team once the trio had officially said their goodbyes.
Coach Pop recognized the young man's potential, too, stating in an NBA.com mailbag his plans for the rising Leonard.
"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. When you consider he’s only had one year of college and no training camp yet, you can see that he’s going to be something else."
Pop's approval stirred endless hype, confirming everyone's suspicions that the sophomore will one day lead the Spurs' attack.
And while Leonard has definitely displayed remarkable talent in his first year in the league, the immediate "superstar" label may be a bit overblown. In many ways, Leonard is ready to be handed the torch immediately, while other indications signal that the young man has ways to go before he can officially be considered the Spurs' unquestioned leader.
A superstar's qualities extend far past their pure talent. While a certain amount of natural ability is necessary, a star is defined for his unique attributes that set him apart from other talented players.
Tim Duncan, the Spurs' future Hall-of-Famer is the epitome of a true leader. While his dominance on the court is unquestionable, Duncan has the respect of all of his teammates as well as his coach, a mandatory characteristic should he want others to look up to him.
His intelligence is off-the-charts, with an understanding of the game that few players in NBA history have. He also has an undying will to be the best, therefore giving him the "first man to practice, last to leave" work ethic that all superstars have.
Duncan also knows how to control his emotions, staying mature and professional when others would normally lash out.
Kawhi Leonard, despite only having a year of experience under his belt, has already displayed these remarkable qualities. Pop raves about his work ethic, an attribute that boosted his stock in the draft back when he declared.
As for his professionalism and maturity, Leonard has never lashed out on the court, and knows how to handle himself off the court as well.
He already has the respect of his coach, who is known to have a particular fondness for the budding youngster, as well as his teammates.
From a leadership standpoint, Leonard—despite lacking veteran experience—has already displayed enough maturity to welcome the role of being the Spurs' star.
When Kawhi Leonard was drafted in 2011, the Spurs had no idea that they were acquiring the potential next face of the franchise. He was drafted due to his aptitude for defense, and not much more.
Needless to say, Leonard brought more than just a defensive game when he showed up in San Antonio, though despite his improvements on the offensive end, defense remains Leonard's strongest area. His incredible 7'3'' wingspan allows him to pester defenders with the ball. The young forward has also displayed a knack for infiltrating passing lanes, an ability that has resulted in a team high, 2.2 steals per game (as accurate of November 9).
This effortless ability to defend opponents has supplemented Duncan's defensive prowess this season, with Leonard leading the team's perimeter attack while Duncan anchors the post.
Pop on the emergence of Kawhi Leonard: "As far as defense goes, he can pretty much lead the way for this team."
— Jeff McDonald, Spurs Beat Writer (@JMcDonald_SAEN) November 4, 2012
The Spurs are slowly transitioning into a defensive minded team, due largely in part to Leonard's exceptional ability. Should Pop's vote of confidence stand true, Leonard's ability to lead the defense should allow him to emerge as a superstar should the Spurs focus more on defense.
Leonard's ability to turn defense into offense makes him a major threat to opponents.
The Spurs traded for Leonard with the belief that his offensive game was incredibly raw and substandard. However, he quickly proved the team wrong, displaying an ease for three-point shooting, an aspect of his game that few knew about.
However, in his sophomore campaign, Leonard's shooting hasn't been on par to his rookie year averages, verifying the common speculation that his offensive game still is under-developed. On some nights, Leonard racks up the points as if he was a pure scorer, only to disappear completely on other nights.
While he certainly has shown an improvement from his shooting back in San Diego State, it is hard to credit Leonard as the Spurs' star should the inconsistency continue.
Still, while his shooting has weakened, Leonard has picked up the slack in other areas.
While he isn't a pure shooter, Leonard has recently gained enough confidence to bring the ball up the court, and while he isn't a Point-Forward in any sense, this new-found skill is a good sign.
He is also a great driver, fearlessly penetrating to the rack, either finishing down low or drawing the foul. Despite these positive facets to his offensive game, he is too unpredictable on the scoring end to immediately emerge as a star.
Overall, Kawhi Leonard may be another gem unearthed by Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford. He is only in his second year as a professional, and while he may not yet be ready to take on the title of a superstar, the hype is certainly a good indication that he might one day acquire such a label.
Luckily, the Big Three era isn't yet over, so Leonard still has time to mature both as a player and as a person, before he is officially handed the reins.
As of now, Leonard only needs to be a role player, though that will change over time. He has already established himself as a great player, and with so many positive qualities, Spurs fans should be excited about the young man.