There’s nothing provocative about being a product of the system—it sounds so, ya know, San Antonio Spurs-ish.
To call the progression of Kawhi Leonard an affirmation of the Spurs’ system is a yawn. We want our NBA stars to be super humans, showcasing natural talent and flair; it’s far more intoxicating than a guy simply learning to do his job.
There’s nothing flashy about, “I'm a role player,” as Leonard calls himself in a piece by Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.com.
Yet, it’s that attitude that propels the Spurs into annual contenders. Guys don’t stand out by design, and they develop with the same level of noiselessness.
Surprisingly in this culture of marketing and individual glamor, the Spurs make it about basketball.
Leonard is about basketball. He fits a much-needed role for the Spurs as the team’s most athletic player and an active wing who can fly to the rim and also knock down three-pointers.
The premium of his game, and also the less flashy portion, is his prodigious rebounding and sturdy defense on opposing wings.
In the finals, Leonard shares the task of defending the game's greatest player, LeBron James. James is averaging 16.7 points on 38.9 percent shooting through three games in the NBA Finals, down from his 29-point average on 51 percent shooting against the defensive-minded Indiana Pacers in the conference finals.
Gregg Popovich and the Spurs’ coaching staff know how to transform talent. When you give players specific roles that fit their strengths, the result is the success we’ve seen in San Antonio.
It’s not limiting to Leonard; it’s simply placing him in positions to flourish. Of all the Spurs’ role players, the 6'7" Leonard is the most versatile, and that allows Popovich to give him an array of responsibilities.
Leonard is playing as many minutes as Tony Parker this postseason, a team-high 36.4 per game, and he's averaging the third-most points for San Antonio at 12.6 per game. He is second behind Tim Duncan in rebounds at 8.7 per game and he leads the team with 1.7 steals.
Not bad for a second-year player finding a role with a veteran dynasty.
However, it’s not always about tangibles in the Spurs’ organization. It’s not about what you are capable of doing as much as how willing a player is to buy in to the system.
Leonard is still just 21 years old, but he’s already tuned to a Popovich program that earmarks distinct roles for each player.
For now, Leonard is a secondary option on offense as well as a rebounder and perimeter defender. He’s not the man yet; he’s not even tempted by it—at least outwardly.
Shelburne quotes Leonard in regards to seeing himself as a role player: “I am. I'm not getting no plays called for me out on the floor. I'm not getting no isos. So I'm a role player. I'm playing off of Tim, Tony and Manu, the players [that] get isos.”
Leonard, you’re officially a Spur.
There’s no floating of the hand after a three-point shot, no look-at-me taunts after dunks and no inappropriate jawing. Again, Leonard is just 21, an age when the grand stage of success in the NBA finals can overwhelm an ego.
But that’s not Leonard; his unassuming personality is the perfect fit for the Spurs.
The San Diego State product is typical of this San Antonio roster. Like Danny Green or Gary Neal, Leonard was overlooked at a time.
Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times wrote earlier in the postseason:
He was the overlooked star at Riverside King High who went to San Diego State while less talented players in his area went to UCLA. After two standout seasons in college, he was largely ignored again, selected No. 15 in the 2011 NBA draft after some believed he would go in the top 10.
Leonard is one of the more recent testaments to the Spurs’ system. The hands-on coaching and development of young players has been a hallmark to the team’s homegrown success.
Parker appears destined for the Hall of Fame after being drafted with the 28th pick in the 2001 draft, and fellow star Manu Ginobili was drafted No. 57 overall in 1999. Both have obviously flourished in their respective progressions into superstars for San Antonio.
It could be Leonard's turn next. Popovich stated even before this season that he believes Leonard will be the future face of the Spurs.
That's high praise from the game's first-class coach.
Of course, you wouldn't hear any of that from Leonard. Certainly he wants to be the best, but outwardly promoting himself as such would be so "un-Spurs" of him.
He's a system guy, and that's just where San Antonio wants him.