The word "youth" is hardly ever associated with the San Antonio Spurs. In fact, a completely different picture often comes to mind.
Though they have been perennial championship contenders for over a decade, they have done so without restocking their roster, as the team's core remains identical to that of 2003.
That said, despite having a nucleus formed around aging veterans like Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, the team is not completely devoid of youth, whose value revolves around their "upside."
When considering the team's budding stars, two players often come to mind.
Kawhi Leonard and Tiago Splitter—whose respective careers of only three and four years ensure that they are on the rise—represent the next generation of Spurs, as they are the current players with the most room for growth.
At 29, Splitter is neither a seasoned veteran nor a rising star. While he has been instrumental in helping San Antonio thrive on both ends of the court, his lack of youth or established success diminishes his degree of upside completely, right?
Not so much.
A number of factors are necessary to ponder when pinpointing Splitter's value and potential.
For starters, it is extremely important to note that Splitter is still a relatively new face when compared to other 29-year-olds in the league. Having played a large portion of his career overseas, the Brazilian big man entered late, debuting in 2010 despite being drafted in '07.
Thus, Splitter's four years in the Association indicate that his room to grow is rather large. Taking into account the vigilance with which Gregg Popovich approaches his players' court time, Splitter's tenure as a player will belie his age, as the wear and tear on his body will hardly measure up with other potent 29-year-olds whose playing time eclipses Splitter's career average of 19.6 minutes.
Additionally, the exposure Splitter is primed to receive makes him a viable candidate for "Most Upside." As stated, Splitter has been fairly underused, especially when considering the skill that he has demonstrated as a two-way big. However, Tim Duncan—whose presence has both helped to expedite Splitter's growth and hinder his exposure—is near the end of his career, leaving a clear path for Splitter to further prove his worth in the post-Duncan era.
While it is likely that the team will add another frontcourt player to replace Duncan once he decides to hang it up, San Antonio has invested in Splitter long-term, having given him a sizable four-year deal worth an average of $9 million per season.
Though he is yet to show that he has the capability of leading a team in the post, he has demonstrated an innate ability on defense that few in the league can replicate.
When modified to eliminate unqualified players whose average may not accurately reflect their true ability due to a small collection of data, NBA.com's ranking of opponent field-goal percentage at the rim features Splitter's name near the top. Aside from Roy Hibbert and Robert Lopez, Splitter and his 43 percent average are the envy of the league.
His defense is not the only indication that he may blossom into an adept post presence. His offensive talent has grown every year and encompasses an array of skills, including the masterful execution of the pick-and-roll and a premier passing ability that is rare in seven-footers.
Take into account the notion that his basketball IQ and overall confidence grow exponentially with every season as well as the fact that Duncan and Popovich are first-class tutors, and Splitter's future is bright.
When Kawhi Leonard exploded onto the scene in his rookie campaign, Spurs fans reached a level of excitement that had not been seen since the introduction of Tim Duncan as a basketball prodigy over a decade earlier.
Now three years into his NBA run, Leonard has already demonstrated an ability that ensures that his career will be anything but ordinary.
At 22, Leonard has plenty of time to develop. That said, he has already accomplished quite a bit, not the least of which is his title as one of the NBA's top LeBron-stoppers.
The fact that he has been lauded for his ability to contain the league's best player speaks volumes regarding his overall ability on defense.
Like, Splitter, Leonard has been tabbed as a top defender, though he has found his niche controlling the perimeter, not the post. The San Diego State product was recognized as a physical phenomenon when he entered the league, owning a pair of Hulk-sized hands and a 7'3'' wingspan.
However, he has proven that he has the basketball IQ and overall talent to supplement his physical gifts. His on-ball defense is top notch, though he truly has garnered a reputation for his ability to govern passing lanes. With Leonard on the court, any ill-considered pass by an opponent is a guaranteed transition bucket for San Antonio.
Additionally, his long arms and unmatched desire combine to ensure that he is an effective post defender.
However, he is hardly the defensive specialist the scouts assumed he would be.
With the ability to shoot the long ball and a strong slashing prowess, Leonard is every bit as gifted offensively as he is on the other end.
And the amazing thing is that his potential to improve is virtually limitless. He learns at an incredible rate, having improved his game with each passing year. At 22, he has plenty of time to further enhance his aptitude. Additionally, his renowned work ethic only solidifies the idea that he has the capacity to transform into a perennial All-Star before his 30th birthday.
Leonard's college coach, Steve Fisher, applauded his former star's work ethic during a press conference:
Nobody is in the gym more than Kawhi. People said, 'Well, can he shoot the ball?' He can shoot the ball at the NBA level. No one's worked harder on his shot than Kawhi. He's living in San Diego still. I had our AD call me up a couple weeks ago when I was gone. He said, 'Coach, we've got an issue with Kawhi in the arena. Event management called and the lights are not on, and Kawhi's in the arena for two straight days at 6:30 in the morning. And he brought two lamps from home, and he put them up in the arena and shot.' And that is a true story.
Combine his potential to grow with his already established talent (and his veteran-like confidence and basketball IQ), and it is clear that Leonard is primed to succeed in every facet of the game.
Once the post-Big Three era begins, the keys to the franchise will fall in the lap of Leonard, who has undoubtedly demonstrated the most upside.
While Splitter will surely thrive with an increased role and more experience, his age and lack of established prominence place him a few steps behind the young man who is seven years his junior.
Leonard is well rounded, hard-working and an overall exemplar of the quintessential player.
He has managed to break out despite sharing the limelight with a handful of future Hall of Famers, and once he accepts his future as the team's next alpha dog, Leonard will have the opportunity to compile his own impressive resume.
While he may not be the team's top player yet, every sign—including the rare nod of approval from Popovich—signals that Leonard's unmatched upside will one day allow him to reach that status.
Until then, the world will watch quietly and closely as he blossoms into San Antonio's next big thing.