I was a sophomore at San Diego State when Kawhi Leonard first set foot on campus. SDSU’s revitalization under Steve Fisher was well underway, but a successful 2008-2009 campaign, guided by senior point guard Richie Williams, had ended with the team narrowly missing the Big Dance before advancing to the to NIT semifinals in New York, where they fell against Baylor, 76-62.
The lanky kid from Riverside, California, who was labeled with “the biggest hands you’ve ever seen,” made an instant impact in his freshman season. The team finished 25-9 overall, 11-5 in the MWC, and won the program’s record-tying 3rd MWC Tournament title before earning a difficult draw against Tennessee in the first round of the NCAAs.
While the team eventually went down in a close contest, 62-59, it was clear to everyone closely following the SDSU basketball program that Kawhi Leonard was a special player, and there was a high degree of excitement surrounding his return for a sophomore campaign under Steve Fisher’s tutelage.
In his quiet, “Kawhi” way, the lanky freshman with the huge hands posted impressive two-way stats across the board in his first collegiate season, 12.7 PPG, 9.9 RPG, and 47 tallied steals to go along with 24 blocks. He averaged 45% from the field, overall, but only shot 20% from 3-point range.
The following year, the crowd at Viejas Arena would become famous for the raucous environment opponents were faced with every time they stepped on the court. The rowdy student section, which was eventually nicknamed, “The Show,” was a spectacle for a very good reason. But that reason had nothing to do with the thousands of drunken students dancing and screaming themselves hoarse in the stands.
Kawhi Leonard was emerging as a superstar, a player capable of putting his thumbprint all over the game of basketball at his will. Kawhi’s natural physical gifts allowed him to do things on the court that most of us will only dream of, but his humility and commitment to steady, consistent improvement have since driven him to the brink of greatness.
Early in Kawhi’s sophomore season, the team showed the potential to put together a very successful year. They opened the season with two consecutive wins by a combined margin of 54 points before traveling to Spokane and beating Gonzaga in a nationally televised nail-biter, 79-76.
From there, the team rattled off 18 straight wins to open the season 21-0. Then they traveled to Provo to meet a feisty BYU team, led by sharpshooter Jimmer Fredette. BYU’s defensive game plan exposed some of the flaws in Kawhi’s developing offensive game, and Jimmer was red-hot all night.
The team suffered their first loss of the season by an uncomfortably final margin of 71-58, but Steve Fisher regrouped and his team responded without a blowout, 96-point, performance against Wyoming three nights later.
After eight more wins, and another lopsided loss to the hot hand of Jimmer and his BYU team, Fisher’s group finished the regular season 29-2, ranked #7 in the country. Their MWC rival, BYU, finished 28-3 and ranked just below SDSU at #8 in the nation. Everyone was excited about the possibility of an epic MWC Tournament rematch, and after both rivals defeated their first two opponents, the stage was set.
As BYU had previously handed the Aztecs their only two losses of the season to that point, SDSU fans were understandably a bit nervous about what stood between them and a second consecutive MWC Tournament Championship.
But Fisher, Kawhi, Billy White, D.J. Gay, and the rest of that outstanding Aztec team stepped up and defeated the Cougars handily, 72-54. White was the high point man in the game, with 21, but Kawhi calmly finished with 20 points and 8 rebounds, going an impressive 2-for-3 from long distance.
Making a Tournament Run
Kawhi’s quiet, almost emotionless, demeanor was already well known on the San Diego State campus, but it was beginning to become apparent that his steady hands were meant for a much larger stage, the NBA.
After the team beat BYU in the MWC Tournament Final, they knocked off Northern Colorado and Temple, respectively, in the first two rounds of the NCAAs before squaring off against the eventual champion UConn Huskies in Anaheim, a game I was fortunate to attend.
The first half was a scrappy, defensive, “Kawhi” kind of game, and it looked like SDSU had a great chance to continue their run. But Kemba Walker’s seldom mentioned halftime flop completely altered the environment of the arena in Anaheim that day, and the team went on to lose 74-67.
Kawhi finished with just 12 points and nine rebounds. On a day when he had the chance to put his blueprint on the second half and write his name into the lore of March Madness, Kawhi quietly faded into the background, and SDSU’s unpredicted tournament run came to an end.
The team finished the 2010-2011 campaign with a 34-3 overall record, two wins in the NCAA Tournament, and a hard-fought loss to the team that eventually cut down the twine in Houston. Kawhi’s final sophomore stat line read as follows: 15.5 ppg, 10.6 rpg, 2.5 apg, 21 total blocks, and 51 steals. He once again averaged 45% from the field and improved his 3-point percentage to nearly 30%.
Chasing the NBA Dream
While his stats may not be considered “eye-popping,” anyone that spent any time studying Kawhi’s game knew that the lanky kid passed the NBA eye test. Whenever he was on the court, you just had the feeling he was capable of impacting the game at any moment.
His test, if he was to be successful in the NBA, was to develop the ability to have that type of impact when his team needed it most. When I learned of Kawhi’s intent to forego his remaining eligibility at SDSU and enter the NBA Draft, I’ll admit I would’ve preferred that he return and spend a final year honing his skills in Steve Fisher’s system.
But I had the atmosphere of Viejas Arena for the 2011-2012 season in mind. Kawhi, it became clear, had a much larger objective. When the draft day trade was approved that sent Kawhi to San Antonio in exchange for George Hill, I knew Kawhi would be a perfect fit for the Spur’s organization.
Some around the league might’ve considered the trade a significant gamble, but San Antonio needed to get longer at the wing position, and they took a chance on developing the offensive game of a player they obviously hoped would be a defensive cornerstone of their team for many years.
While Kawhi undoubtedly still had many holes in his game when he entered the NBA, it was clear that the humble kid from California was steadfast in his commitment to improving, and he found an ideal coaching staff in San Antonio to help him do so.
A Perfect Marriage
Fast forward to the days leading up to last season’s NBA Finals. Most of the media buzz centered on LeBron, the Heat, and their quest for a three-peat. San Antonio was humbly back in the Finals where, just a year earlier, they had fallen to LeBron and the Heat in a series most thought they really should’ve won.
With the buzz surrounding “LeBron’s Quest,” someone in the media got the bright idea of looking across the court to see which Spur would be responsible for staring down the league’s greatest player in the league’s biggest series. That man, as we now know, was Kawhi Leonard.
Kawhi had a coming out party in last year’s NBA Finals, locking down LeBron on defense and displaying the full array of his ever-developing offensive game. The Spurs dismantled the Heat in a very convincing five games and, at just 22 years old, Kawhi became the third youngest player to be named Finals MVP.
While many 22-year-olds would inevitably find themselves on the unfortunate side of the tabloids after such a meteoric rise to the national stage, Kawhi slipped back into relative anonymity when all the Finals “hubbub” subsided. This year, though struggling through injuries, Kawhi was voted the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year and the Spurs, in their steady, methodical fashion, once again appear to be a serious threat to defend their title.
Many young men that find success in sports today go on to struggle with the burdens of external expectations. But Kawhi Leonard is a model for a superstar that succeeds precisely because he’s able to tune out those expectations and direct his efforts toward the things he can control. He is rapidly becoming a superstar in the very same mold as his teammate, and consummate NBA professional, Tim Duncan.
Grooming a Superstar for Years to Come
Duncan, Popovich, Ginobili, and Parker have seemingly been the backbone of the Spur’s success forever, and their sustained excellence is really quite marvelous. In an era when many owners and managers are prone to blowing up rosters and showing little patience with coaches that don’t find immediate success, the Spurs have succeeded largely due to their consistency.
For a team that has been so successful for so many years, the fact that they continue to set new goals and the humility that they display through a consistent dedication to self-analyzing and searching for areas in which they can improve is very impressive.
This humility and willingness to sacrifice individual accomplishments in favor of a team goal is something we should all appreciate. In a media world intent on constantly digging up even the most worthless information and turning it into a scandal, the Spurs organization, and its’ members simply don’t allow these distractions to affect their quest.
They’re acutely aware of the things they can control. They’re aware that many things may go wrong along the way. But they retain the humility necessary to continuously learn from their experience, and therein lies one of the major keys to their success.
As I watched the Game 3 blowout in the Spurs-Clippers series, Jeff Van Gundy very astutely pointed out that, while we’re quick to give the advantage to the more experienced team, experience itself is worthless if you can’t step back, critically analyze how you can get better, and work your butt off to improve.
The Spur’s experience is invaluable because of their collective ability to self-analyze, and the traits that have made San Antonio organization so successful are the very same traits I saw in Kawhi Leonard, even back in his days at SDSU.
Those traits are humility, honesty, an undying commitment to improve, and a selfless dedication to the success of the whole. San Antonio basketball is fun to watch because it’s about creating, sharing, and co-creating.
Redefining What We Value in the “Model” Athlete
Kawhi Leonard is the superstar the NBA desperately needs because he is humble, he plays with passion and energy on both ends of the floor, and he is perfectly content to go about his “life outside of basketball” without the glare of the media spotlight. He simply loves to play the game, and he wants to do so to the best of his God-given abilities.
In an age where seemingly everyone is in search of his or her 15 seconds of fame, Kawhi is a special talent that already exudes the calm, steady professionalism that has become atypical of the Spur’s organization. At 23, Leonard is already very familiar the hard work, determination, and self-sacrifice it requires for an NBA team to be successful in the playoffs.
The Spurs, with their long history of developing and sustaining excellence, are grooming another highly efficient, “consummate pro”, to add to their impressive lineage of former, and current, players. If he stays true to the virtues that have gotten him here so far, the lanky kid with the steady hands could wind up being the best of the whole bunch when all is said and done.
As the Spurs continue their postseason run, Kawhi’s talents will be on full display. Those watching at home, and in the stands, are sure to take notice. I doubt he cares much for the attention, though. Kawhi and his teammates are locked in on repeating as NBA champions. The Spurs, and the NBA for that matter, should be willing to ride their modest superstar as far as he’s willing to carry them.