San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich Anoints Kawhi Leonard 'The Future of the Spurs'

Andy BaileyFeatured ColumnistJune 1, 2014

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK  MAY 31: Kawhi Leonard #2 of the San Antonio Spurs handles the ball against the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game Six of the Western Conference Finals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs on May 31, 2014 at the Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2014 NBAE  (Photo by Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images)
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The San Antonio Spurs are a great team right now. Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker have defied the effects of age, and they're heading to their second straight NBA Finals.

As for their future? Well, that might be set too. With Kawhi Leonard continuing to emerge, the Spurs have a potential star who can carry them beyond the Big Three era.

Following San Antonio's Game 6 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, Gregg Popovich had this to say about Leonard:

When you watch the Spurs, you can just see the superstar talent of Leonard waiting to burst out of his 6'7" frame.

Plays like this one show off what he's capable of as a defender:

The list of players who could stop Russell Westbrook cold in his tracks in transition like that is extremely small. Leonard has the size, athleticism and awareness to not only make the list, but be near the top of it.

Bleacher Report's Zach Buckley offered further proof that Leonard is a difference-making defender, saying:

His floor presence has meant the difference between San Antonio having an elite defense (97.4 defensive rating when he's in the game, which would be second-best in the league) or one that's slightly above average (102.1 when he sits, would rank ninth).

He's not just a defender, though.

He showcased what he can do offensively earlier in Game 6, when he dunked all over Serge Ibaka, one of the league's best shot blockers, in the first quarter.

And he was quietly effective on that end all season. From Buckley:

His scoring numbers don't jump off the page (12.7 PPG), but his shooting marks might (.522/.376/.805 slash line). He's still a few rungs from the top of San Antonio's offensive ladder, but he'll continue to inch his way up during postseason play.

He's fourth on the Spurs in postseason scoring, but his average has crept up to 13.3 in 18 playoff games, and he dropped 17 along with 11 rebounds, four assists, one steal and one block in the closeout effort against the Thunder.

In his NBA 200 series, Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal had Leonard ranked as the league's sixth-best small forward already, despite playing in a smaller role.

In his overall analysis of Leonard's game, Fromal said:

Eventually, Tim Duncan is going to retire (I think...), and Leonard will step into the superstar role, leaving the model franchise maintaining its spot among the NBA elite. The small forward is only missing opportunity to thrive as a scorer, because he's already showing out in nearly every facet of the game. 

He should get that opportunity soon, as Duncan is 38 and playing in his 16th postseason. He and Ginobili, who's 36, will continue to decline or even retire, and Leonard's role will continue to grow.

The Spurs are in a great position to remain contenders even beyond the Big Three era, and Leonard is the primary reason why.


Andy Bailey covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewDBailey.