Rarely in NBA history has a 21-year-old been the key to a team's playoff chances. Even rarer are those cases where that same young player has a green light to shoot on a team that boasts three future Hall of Famers.
That's the situation in San Antonio these days, however: Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili may get all of the press, but without an exceptional effort from Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs' run in the postseason doesn't figure to be a long one.
"[Leonard is] the complete player," said Minnesota Timberwolves' forward Andrei Kirilenko in an interview with Paul Garcia of Project Spurs. "With him having Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili on the team, it's opened up opportunities for him to be unattended."
Leonard was a sophomore at Martin Luther King High School in Riverside, California back when San Antonio won their last title in 2007. In those days, the Spurs' trio was a legit "Big Three": Ginobili, Parker and Duncan each averaged at least 16 points per game that season, and the latter two were legitimate MVP candidates.
Age has gotten the better of the threesome in recent years, and it's clear that the men who comprised the core of the Spurs attack for so many seasons are closer to the end of the line than they are the beginning.
Enter Kawhi Leonard.
"Kawhi is a competitor," said Gregg Popovich in a recent interview with Jose Grijalva of Project Spurs. "He knows he has a license to play."
Leonard earned that license after shooting better than 49 percent from the field for the second season in a row. The black mark on Leonard's resume at San Diego State was his suspect long-range game, but the former Aztec has knocked down nearly 38 percent of his three-pointers over the last two years.
San Antonio doesn't need Leonard to score 20 points per game in order to win. In fact, the Spurs would settle for the March edition of Leonard throughout the playoffs. Last month, the second-year small forward averaged 14.2 points and 6.8 rebounds while shooting nearly 53 percent from the floor.
In a perfect world, San Antonio would get the Kawhi Leonard that went shot for shot with Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant back on April 4. San Antonio lost that game by 12, but Leonard put up his best line of the season (24 points, 14 rebounds, six assists) while making Durant work for each of his 25 points.
That game was admittedly an outlier: What isn't rare, though, is Leonard's bulldog-like tenacity on defense. Frequently matched up against the opposing team's best wing player, Leonard's Defensive Rating of 99.4 was the 11th-best mark in the league.
"I don't think nothing of it, really," said Leonard in an interview with Jeff McDonald of Spurs Nation. "It's how I've been playing my whole life, guarding the best player on the other team."
Thanks to Leonard's contributions on both ends of the court, the Spurs are 10.1 points better per 100 possessions when he's on the floor. Leonard's greatest gift is his efficiency: Few movements are wasted as he continually finds ways to produce without dominating the basketball.
The most telling statistic of all is the Spurs' win/loss record: With Leonard in the lineup this season, San Antonio is 43-15. Without him, the team is just 15-9.
Since the passage of time cannot be defeated, the proverbial torch of the Spurs will eventually be passed down to Leonard. Not only does the 6'7" forward represent San Antonio's future, but he also happens to be a vital part of their present as well.
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