San Antonio Spurs: 5 Reasons Kawhi Leonard Can Win Rookie of the Year
After all, that's part of the reason why the Spurs acquired him in a draft-day trade with the Indiana Pacers, sending guard George Hill for Leonard, the No. 42 pick Davis Bertans and the draft rights to 2005 draft selection Erazem Lorbek.
However, can Leonard's success as a collegiate athlete and prospect translate to the NBA level?
Well, that's a completely different story, but if I had to bet on it, I'd say yes.
Consequently, this article will serve to demonstrate why Leonard very well could end up winning the 2011-12 Rookie of the Year when it's all said and done.
No. 1: Talent
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Kawhi Leonard is a very talented basketball player.
During his most recent season at San Diego State, he posted a per-game stat line of 15.5 points, 10.6 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.7 threes and 0.6 blocks—all while shooting 44.4 percent from the field.
What's more, Leonard carried his team to a 34-3 record, a win in the Mountain West Conference Tournament, a top-10 ranking, and a deep NCAA Tournament run (where they lost to the eventual champion UConn Huskies).
And as if that were not enough, he undoubtedly has many of the qualities of a good NBA player.
First and foremost, Leonard is extremely long. At the predraft combine, the 6'7" forward's wingspan measured at 7'3", his standing reach at 8'10" and his hands were some of the largest in his draft class.
Furthermore, while his athleticism is not overwhelming, it's not too bad either, and his 5.4 percent body is certainly impressive.
And when all of that is coupled with Leonard's large and diverse set of skills—he plays with high energy and toughness, he's a terrific rebounder, he can score in a variety of ways, he can handle the ball, he is a solid defender—then it's clear the he has the tools to compete for the Rookie of the Year award.
No. 2: Work Ethic
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Leonard is not a perfect basketball player.
However, he works hard to address his shortcomings.
But simply calling him a hard worker doesn't exactly do Leonard justice, as he actually managed to make headlines earlier this month for spending too much time in the gym.
In fact, his head coach at San Diego State, Tim Fisher, said that while he was on vacation, he was informed that Leonard had been working in the gym before it had opened—even bringing his own lamps since the gym's lights were not yet turned on.
And if he has spent all of this time working to add consistency to his jumper—his most glaring weakness—then Leonard may truly be a force to be reckoned with once the season tips off.
But that's not all, as during what will be a lockout-shortened season, showing up in good shape and without any rust will be hugely important to Leonard's success as a rookie.
No. 3: Supporting Cast
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The San Antonio Spurs are no longer the same dynasty which won four NBA championships from 1999 to 2007.
However, the team is still among the league's best, as evidence by their 61-21 record from last season, which was good for second-best in the NBA.
Therefore, Kawhi Leonard should immediately benefit from his surroundings.
First of all, Leonard never played with very high-caliber guards in college, which depressed his level of play to some extent.
However, suiting up alongside playmaking guards like Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili should change all of that.
Therefore, within the Spurs offense he should have many opportunities to take open shots, while competing with the ineffective Richard Jefferson for time at small forward.
What's more, Leonard should be able to immediately contribute to the team's frontcourt due to the aging of Tim Duncan and Antonio McDyess.
And finally, Duncan—despite being 35 years old—will still garner much of the defensive attention on the interior, opening up the middle for Leonard to be highly effective inside.
No. 4: Draft History
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Since 1999, the San Antonio Spurs have not had a draft selection higher than No. 20.
Nevertheless, the team has still managed to regularly get great value for their picks, drafting players like Ginobili (No. 57, 1999), Parker (No. 28, 2001), Luis Scola (No. 55, 2002), John Salmons (No. 26, 2002), Leandro Barbosa (No. 28, 2003), Beno Udrih (No. 28, 2004), Tiago Splitter (No. 28, 2007), George Hill (No. 26, 2008) and DeJuan Blair (No. 37, 2009).
Therefore, it's easy to understand why the Spurs have one of the most respected scouting departments in all of the NBA.
And because of these highly talented and knowledgeable scouts, it's reasonable to trust that their first top-20 player in over a decade, Leonard, will turn out to be something awfully special.
No. 5: Early Tests
photo courtesy of The Salt Lake Tribune
In late September, a group of 2011 draft picks, headlined by Jimmer Fredette, decided to stage an exhibition game at the Marriott Center in Provo, Utah.
Among those participating were Bismack Biyombo (No. 7), Kemba Walker (No. 9), Fredette (No. 10), Leonard (No. 15), Chris Singleton (No. 18), Tobias Harris (No. 19), Nolan Smith (No. 21), Kenneth Faried (No. 22), Tyler Honeycutt (No. 35), Malcolm Lee (No. 43), Charles Jenkins (No. 44), Vernon Macklin (No. 52), Isaiah Thomas (No. 60) and a few undrafted free agents.
Prior to the game, Leonard was chosen to serve as the captain of his team, and he ultimately managed to knock off Jimmer's squad, 140-126.
But that wasn't all, as when all was said and done, Leonard also led his team in scoring with 24 points, managed to pull down a total of 10 rebounds, dished out a few assists and put on an all-around solid defensive showing.
And by proving that he can out-play many of the NBA's top rookies, then it's certainly possible that Leonard can win the 2011-12 Rookie of the Year.