Kawhi Leonard isn’t a flashy, bombastic NBA player.
In fact, if someone wasn’t an avid NBA fan, Leonard’s name wouldn’t even surface in a debate over premier basketball talents.
No, he’s not Carmelo Anthony or LeBron James. Leonard’s not even recognizable in his own conference (Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, etc.).
It makes total sense he’s rostered on arguably the most overlooked franchise, too. Under the radar is an understatement for them.
But after his sizzling introduction to the 2016-17 campaign, a campaign that’s branded him as the face of the San Antonio Spurs post-Duncan, Leonard is finally being discussed as a top-5 player throughout the NBA landscape.
Catapulting the Spurs to an undefeated 4-0 record and coming up with sensational efforts in crunch time when his team’s leaning on him, Leonard’s performing at a level — in the tougher conference, mind you — like we’ve never seen before, at an alarming pace.
Leonard is a coach’s player: He says the right things, doesn’t revel in his own personal production or single-out scapegoats. And because of his selfless, sheltered persona, it’s what has kept him out of the limelight. That and what was Duncan’s presence, of course.
That’s not Leonard’s priority, though. Winning championships and simply striving for rafter remembrance is all a part of his DNA. And lest we forget he’s already been a Finals MVP.
“He wants the greatness badly,” head coach Gregg Popovich said. “He doesn’t give a damn about the stardom. He loves the game. He ignores the rest of it.”
Leonard’s embraced the challenges handed down to him and running with it. Not only is his offense taking off, but his defense is abnormally noticeable. It’s surprising to no one, though, given his two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year accolades.
“He’s so complete,” Spurs forward Pau Gasol said, per the San Antonio Express-News’ Jeff McDonald. “You see players play at a high level on offense, but this guy does it on both ends. It’s hard to say where he is more exceptional.”
That’s what has separated Leonard from opposing stars, is his two-way capabilities. For the season, he’s recorded 13 steals and is averaging 3.3 per game which leads the league for that category. To put that into perspective, his total number of steals (13) is currently more than five NBA teams, per Quixem Ramirez.
Kawhi Leonard has 13 steals this year. That’s more than five entire NBA teams so far.
— Quixem Ramirez (@quixem) October 31, 2016
Jostling over who’s the best overall player, Leonard’s numbers speak volumes in credentialing himself for that tussle.
Now that Duncan’s off the court, Leonard has seized his opportunity to bust out of the shadows. Perhaps that’s what was disguising his face. Not that he cares at all about it. He cares more about others. The public feeds off the entertainers and villains, and Leonard’s just not one of ’em.
It’s almost as if Duncan never left, and he just morphed into Leonard.
“It’s all about winning for me,” Leonard said, per Mcdonald. “I don’t care what my stats come out to be that night. I just try to play every game like it’s Game 7 of the NBA Finals. It’s win or lose.”
That couldn’t be more prevalent, either. Following their win over the Miami Heat, Leonard became league’s most winningest player through his first 300 games, with an eye-popping 235-65 record.
You can see how hungry Leonard is — the command is enhanced with each possession and he isn’t shying away from the basket at any stage of the game. It’s the same hunger Duncan had. Similarities abound, Leonard’s making his whole team better, like his predecessor, too.
Although he’s put himself on the map, the push to develop his supporting cast is ever-apparent. That’s the Spurs’ way. That’s what’s vaulting him: the complete-package labeling.
What’s funny, though, is despite Leonard’s recent hubbub, it still feels like he’s not yet established himself. Maybe that’s because his work is far from done, and that’s obvious.
But you’ve got to be living under a rock at this point to not notice him now.
“The things he does just amaze me,” Popovich said.
And the train ain’t stopping.