Kawhi Leonard Is Quietly Ready to Be San Antonio Spurs' Next Star

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 1, 2014

USA Today

With the basketball world casting nothing more than a disinterested glance in Kawhi Leonard's direction, one can assume the "everything is bigger in Texas" talk doesn't apply to the San Antonio Spurs' marketing team.

Leonard has superstar tools and an employer who rarely mishandles a blueprint. Unfortunately, he also wound up in the one city where the NBA's "superstars' league" descriptor doesn't apply.

Despite an historic run of success, the Spurs just don't move the needle on a global scale. Fans appreciate those four championship banners swinging from the AT&T Center rafters, but they prefer to appreciate them from afar.

Leonard won't bring them any closer. He's a team-first player with a team-first organization in a league where fans need a little me-first attitude from their favorites.

He could care less what those fans need. His NBA journey has never been about them.

"It doesn't matter what the nation thinks about my game," Leonard said late last season, per The Associated Press (via NBA.com). "I have goals set for myself. I want to reach my own goals."

Eric Gay/Associated Press

The Spurs have goals of their own for their rare lottery investment (Leonard, the No. 15 pick in 2011, landed in San Antonio by way of a draft-night trade with the Indiana Pacers) and a track record to show him the importance of staying true to the process.

Leonard's stat sheet is even more modest than the man himself. A quick glance at the numbers paints the picture of a tertiary option.

Following the Process: Tracking Leonard's Gradual Growth

In some respects, that's exactly who he is. Or that's how he's used, anyway.

With two Hall of Fame talents joining him in the starting lineup (Tim Duncan, Tony Parker) and a third coming off the bench (Manu Ginobili), Leonard is far from a featured player in San Antonio. He sees the sixth-most shots per 36 minutes (11.8) and has just the eighth-highest usage rate (18.0 percent).

This all works within San Antonio's plan. Coach Gregg Popovich has enough scoring to get by, but he needs athleticism and defense—two staples of Leonard's game.

His natural gifts allow him to be a defensive gambler while limiting his risk. With a 7'3" wingspan, per DraftExpress, and a motor that doesn't quit, he can give himself a shot at wreaking defensive havoc without sacrificing valuable defensive position, as Matthew Tynan of 48MinutesOfHell.com described:

One second he’s in front of you, the next he’s extending into the fringes of passing lanes, knocking balls away and vacuuming them up with his suction-cup hands. There are no 50-50 balls when Leonard is around the action; it feels like that number jumps to about 80-20.

Leonard is that bit of color in Popovich's white, silver and black world.

He trusts his coach and the system San Antonio runs. But he's quick to pull a wild card if the situation presents itself.

The Spurs don't pull too many tricks. Popovich crafts a methodical game plan, and his players flawlessly execute it. There's a predictability to this team that's well-respected in hoops circles but mislabeled as "boring" by the common fan.

Leonard is the wrinkle in all this and a vital one at that given how the team has fared without him:

As long as the "Big Three" stick around, it's hard to see Leonard wriggling out of this glue-guy role. He might be the bridge to the next era, but he'll need this one to leave first before getting a centerpiece's workload.

Once that change happens, though, don't be surprised when his statistics soar. He already seems capable of doing so much more.

Although it's a small sample size (46 plays), he currently holds the highest efficiency rate (1.26 points per possession) on offensive post-ups, via Synergy Sports (subscription required). He also has top-20 rankings as an off-ball cutter (1.51, 10th) and an isolation scorer (1.00, 18th).

He's 32nd in transition scoring (1.31), an impressive standing that still feels low with his athleticism.

The Spurs won't throw him in the fire. Both Parker and Ginobili had to earn their stripes, and they didn't have as many Hall of Fame hurdles to clear.

This might be taking longer than Leonard would like, but it's hard to complain about exposure less than 12 months removed from an NBA Finals appearance.

His chance is coming. With his raw ability and the environment where it's being developed, it's hard to rule him out from one day finding the overstuffed stat sheets and jewelry collections his aging teammates have.

Trusting the Spurs will help increase his odds.

As for finding some recognition from the fans, though, he's on his own. If he winds up as San Antonio's next great star, he won't be getting any more national love than this current group of greats have.

Something tells me he's OK with that. He's a Spur, after all.


Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.