"He has a great capacity to absorb things and he works hard," Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich told reporters last season. "He comes early to practice. He stays after. Our development guys work with him constantly and he wears them out. So he really wants to be good and he's got some talents to work with, so that's a good combination."
And now Leonard's ascent is poised to earn him a big raise.
Still on his rookie contract, the 23-year-old will make just $3,053,368 this season. San Antonio can either ink Leonard to an extension before he becomes a restricted free agent next summer or wait until the end of the season to re-sign him, potentially by matching another team's offer.
However it gets done, this is no time for the Spurs to demonstrate fiscal restraint.
While the organization has historically retained its top talent with below-market deals, Leonard is uniquely essential to the franchise's chances of remaining relevant in the impending post-Duncan era. At 32, point guard Tony Parker is approaching the end of his prime, and 37-year-old Manu Ginobili is well past that prime. Even as San Antonio's core ostensibly defies the aging process, that luck will run out soon enough.
When it does, Leonard becomes even more of a necessity than he is already.
To be sure, this isn't merely a question of fending off other suitors. Were that the only thing at stake, the Spurs could simply wait and see how much Leonard commands on the open market. As a restricted free agent, San Antonio would retain the right to match any offer sheet he signs next summer.
The more important consideration is messaging—leaving no doubt in Leonard's head that he's valued, appreciated and viewed as a superstar in waiting.
In an age of optics, these things matter.
Even if Leonard doesn't show it.
"I'm just playing," Leonard told USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt in June after the Finals. "The Spurs are a great organization. I'm leaving that to my agent, and I'm sure they'll come out with a great understanding and a deal. I'm not focused on that at all."
But don't mistake Leonard's nonchalance as permission for the Spurs to haggle. A vote of confidence could go a long way toward reinforcing the kind of sentiment Leonard hit Zillgitt with next.
"The next step is learning how to carry a team and carry the full load scoring-wise," Leonard explained. "I know people are going to put the main focus on stopping me, so I need to learn how to make my teammates better by passing and creating opportunities for them."
That's the kind of thinking that turns good players into great ones.
For the record, though, Leonard has already acquitted himself nicely.
Through the last three games of the Finals, he tallied a combined 71 points, 28 rebounds, six blocks and six steals. It was the kind of clutch production that almost made one forget Leonard's principal value during the series was slowing down four-time MVP LeBron James.
Per NBCSports.com's Dan Feldman, the last time someone recorded Leonard's Game 4 line (20 points, 14 rebounds, three assists, three steals and three blocks) in the NBA Finals was in 2003, when Duncan did it.
Those who'd pass judgement after glancing at Leonard's regular-season numbers may wonder what all the fuss is about, chalking up the illustrious Finals performance to an anomalous and limited sample size.
They may concede that Leonard is one of the finest perimeter defenders in the game while doubting he can carry a team on the offensive end.
Put in context, however, Leonard's production has been exceptional. The 12.8 points and 6.2 rebounds he averaged a season ago came in just 29.1 minutes per game—minutes that were shared with the league's deepest rotation.
Per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com, the San Diego State product averaged 21.7 points, 10.6 rebounds, 2.9 steals and 1.3 blocks per game.
In addition to his relatively modest playing time, it's worth noting Leonard operates in a system wherein there's a premium on equally distributed touches and ball movement. The Spurs eschew hero-ball, limiting the extent to which someone like Leonard can look for his own offense.
That's one of the biggest differences between Leonard and Indiana Pacers swingman Paul George, another elite two-way star still in the early stages of his career. Whereas Leonard attempted just 9.8 field goals per game last season, George put up 17 shots per contest—which translated into an average of nearly nine more points.
Still, there's a reason Leonard's player efficiency rating—19.43, per ESPN.com—was so close to George's (20.16).
Leonard made an impressive 52.2 percent of his field-goal attempts last season, including a 37.9 percent success rate from beyond the three-point arc. It marked the third year in which he made at least 37 percent of his three-pointers.
That kind of efficiency hints at what Leonard could accomplish as the focal point of San Antonio's offense. Even if Popovich continues to rely on ensemble efforts, there's little doubt his youngest star will soon become his most productive.
He should be paid accordingly.
NBCSports.com's Dan Feldman notes that, "In the last decade, just 20 first-round picks have produced as many win shares as Leonard through three seasons, when they became eligible for contract extensions. So far, 15 of those 20 have received max deals—14 by extension."
The Spurs knew they were getting a potential difference-maker when they traded away team-favorite George Hill to the Indiana Pacers in exchange for the rights to Leonard, taken with the No. 15 overall pick.
"It felt like we were going to get our ass chewed because we just traded the coach's favorite player," general manager R.C. Buford admitted to reporters during the Finals. "Tim, Tony and Manu, those guys had a really strong alignment with George [Hill]. They'd been through a lot together, and there was concern for them, not only that they were losing a great friend but also a great teammate."
San Antonio's willingness to part ways with Hill spoke volumes about how highly they valued the defensively oriented prospect they inherited in return.
Come the summer after Leonard's rookie campaign, Popovich was already making bold predictions.
"I think he’s going to be a star," Popovich said during a 2012 Q&A with fans on Spurs.com. "And as time goes on, he'll be the face of the Spurs I think. At both ends of the court, he is really a special player. And what makes me be so confident about him is that he wants it so badly. He wants to be a good player, I mean a great player."
Having worked with the likes of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili, Popovich knows a thing or two about stars.
And he's not quick to anoint new ones.
If the coach's prognostications shed any light on how much Buford and Co. value Leonard, contract negotiations may be a fairly open-and-shut affair.
Even as it reasons to be a costly one. With other up-and-coming swingmen like Chandler Parsons and Gordon Hayward cashing in this summer, the writing is on the wall for San Antonio's front office. Given that the franchise hasn't been a preferred destination for top-tier free agents, it has little choice when it comes to locking up Leonard for the long term.
That may be the worst-kept secret in the Lone Star State.
For his part, Leonard remains notoriously quiet, and he may never fit the league's conventional profile of a franchise player.
That doesn't mean he shouldn't be compensated like one.
The Spurs have always done things differently. A different kind of superstar couldn't be more welcome.
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