SAN ANTONIO – There’s a story people in the Spurs organization like to tell about Kawhi Leonard’s work ethic. In June 2012, San Antonio completed one of the most anticlimactic drafts in franchise history. With its lone pick -- No. 59 overall -- the Spurs selected Marcus Denmon, a Missouri guard who would never play a minute for them. That night, with the pick made and the clock ticking toward midnight, a public relations staffer left the war room and headed for the media room, where a smattering of weary reporters waited to be escorted onto the practice floor to get a full debriefing from general manager R.C Buford. On the way, the staffer was stopped by a basketball operations official.
Can’t bring the media out there, the official said. There’s a player getting up some shots.
Now, a Spurs player showing up for a late night workout wasn’t unusual. But this player on this date was. The player was Kawhi Leonard. The date was June 28, the day before Leonard’s 21st birthday. On a night most spend sucking down Mind Erasers, Leonard was working on his midrange game.
When it comes to Leonard, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich walks a fine line. On one hand, Popovich believes -- and wants Leonard to believe -- that he is the future of the franchise. It’s why Popovich frequently responds to questions about Leonard with that very phrase.
“You can only talk to somebody so much and if you do it too much, they don’t hear you anymore,” Popovich told SI.com. “Him hearing it from another source, maybe he starts to understand the responsibility that comes with that. It’s not easy to come every night and do what the big guys do. Kevin Durant is expected to do that every night. LeBron [James], Timmy [Duncan]. When he hears it from a lot of sources, I think it helps.”
On the other hand, Popovich doesn’t want expectations for Leonard to spin out of control. A solid third season (12.8 points, 52.2 percent shooting) was overshadowed by three brilliant games to close the Finals (23.3 ppg on 68.6 percent shooting), ratcheting the bar up to astronomical levels.
“Our mantra with him isn’t learning new moves or upping scoring averages,” Popovich said. “It’s going to be about him being a unique player who has an impact on both ends of the court. It’s going to be about having that impact on a consistent, night-to-night basis. Whatever the numbers are, you don’t care. If he can bring that consistency, he will elevate himself onto that next level of players.”
Leonard’s ability to do that could determine if San Antonio can squeeze one more championship out of its aging dynasty. After winning the fifth title of the Duncan-Popovich era this past spring, the Spurs brought the whole band back together, returning 97.5 percent of the team’s minutes last season. The bench -- which averaged an NBA-best 44.3 points per game last season -- will be weaker until Patty Mills returns (out until at least January) from offseason shoulder surgery. And as usual, keeping Duncan, 38, and Manu Ginobili, 37, healthy will be a priority. But the core of the team that ended Miami’s reign is intact. The way the Spurs get better is through Leonard, and the layers he can still add to his game.
Popovich admits he grossly underestimated Leonard in his first year. “We concentrated on defense and rebounding,” Popovich said. The Spurs put Leonard in positions similar to Bruce Bowen, the defensive-minded forward who played a key role in three championship runs. It didn’t take long for Popovich to realize that Leonard had offensive skills Bowen could never dream of.
Bowen, for his part, agrees.
“The different qualities I saw in Tim, in Manu, in Avery [Johnson], I see in Kawhi,” Bowen said. “I would never limit him to being what I was. He’s special. He’s the most complete player on the team right now.”
The Spurs expect Leonard’s offensive game to continue to expand. Leonard continues to work diligently with shooting guru Chip Engellend, who tweaked Leonard’s form after the draft and has steadily helped him become more comfortable shooting three-pointers from all over the floor. Assistant coach Chad Forcier works with Leonard to develop an array of moves, including step backs and jump hooks. And Popovich promises to put a few more plays in the playbook for Leonard, mainly in the post, where Leonard can utilize his sturdy 6-foot-7, 230-pound frame to overpower smaller defenders.
“It’s amazing what Chad and Chip do with him,” Popovich said. “There is never a day that he’s not working on a drop-back jumper or a jump hook. They keep pumping him with more and he keeps absorbing it. I don’t know where the upper level for him is, but it’s going to be pretty significant.”
Popovich isn’t worried about Leonard being overwhelmed by expectations. He learned that lesson in 2011, when he spoke to Leonard about dealing with external pressure about replacing popular veteran George Hill. “I told him, ‘You are in a totally different position,’” Popovich said. “You play the three. That’s what we need, nothing else matters. Your play will make everything fade.” At the time, Popovich didn’t know that Leonard was completely unaware of the Spurs' fondness for Hill and was oblivious to any pressure.
“We have learned to understand who he is,” Popovich said. “He wants to be great. It shows in his actions, before and after practice. Just because you are a max player, doesn’t mean you bring it every night. Kawhi has the ability to do that.”
Scout: On Westbrook-less Thunder
An anonymous NBA scout dishes his take on the Thunder's outlook with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook sidelined.
"They are going to have a hard time scoring. You know they are not going to rush KD back because that’s not what they do. The entire offense was funneled to Westbrook and Durant. You can run the same sets but how effective is it going to be without two of the top 10 players in the NBA? But that’s probably what they are going to do. Reggie Jackson is like a mini-Westbrook. He’s going to get a lot of shots. It was the Perry Jones Show against the Clippers, so he will get looks too. Serge Ibaka isn’t a post presence but they might try to do more to get him more baseline jump shots. These are band-aids though. In this conference, they can easily lose 10 or 15 games over the next month and be in a deep hole when Russ or KD comes back. This injury could knock them out of the playoffs."
Will C's be NBA's surprise team?
Questions are abound as Boston begins Year 2 of its rebuilding effort. Can Jared Sullinger develop into a franchise forward? The Celtics would be thrilled if he did, if for no other reason than it would give GM Danny Ainge an Al Jefferson-like piece to use in a trade. Can Kelly Olynyk become a two-way player? The 7-foot Olynyk is a skilled perimeter player but needs a lot of work on the defensive side of the floor. Can Jeff Green be a consistent top option? On Green’s good days, he is a dynamic scorer. On his bad days -- and there were far too many bad ones last season -- he can disappear from games entirely.
One area the Celtics don't have questions about is on the sideline. Brad Stevens impressed NBA-types with his calm demeanor -- think the anti-Rick Pitino -- and solid play calling last season. Entering his second year, the former Butler coach said he feels far more comfortable than he did a year ago.
“Offensively, defensively, I was playing different than I ever had before,” Stevens told SI.com. “The first time you do that, you usually are not coaching the Celtics. The biggest adjustment for me was the schedule. You can implement things at a slower rate in college. You have to implement things quickly and own them here. That’s the way we are approaching it this year. We are trying to implement it and then fix the things that need to be fixed.”
When last season ended, Stevens and his staff didn’t take much time off. They reviewed film of all of the team’s low-margin losses, dissecting it to determine what they could do differently. They also looked at tape of the 50-60 best players in the league and, said Stevens, “broke them down at an advanced level.”
This season, Stevens has a talented rookie in Marcus Smart, the sixth overall pick. Smart is a defensive menace -- two scouts said Smart has the tools to be the next great perimeter defender -- who uses his sturdy, 6-foot-4 frame to get to the rim. His weakness is his jump shot (he shot 29.5 percent from three in two seasons at Oklahoma State) but the Celtics believe it just needs a little polish.
“We think with Marcus it’s two fold,” Stevens said. “There are some balance things that he always needs to make sure that he takes care of. And in college, it was more shot selection than shooting ability. He had the ball a lot more so he had to shoot the ball at the end of the shot clock. He’s an aggressive guy by nature so occasionally, with that kind of competitiveness, you shoot a bad one. We’re trying to get him to shoot five percent better. That’s good enough to become a threat."
In Smart, the Celtics would seem to have the heir apparent to Rajon Rondo, the free-agent-to-be point guard who is the last remaining player from Boston’s 2008 season. But both Stevens and Ainge believe Smart and Rondo can play together, citing their defensive intensity and playmaking skills. The backcourt rotation -- which includes Avery Bradley, another defensive-minded guard -- looked pretty good in the opener against Brooklyn with Rondo (13 points, 12 assists), Bradley (15 points) and Smart (10 points, four steals) each having an impact.
“It will be interesting [playing Rondo and Smart together]," Stevens said. “They are obviously both very good players who will make our team better. I anticipate them playing together more than I would have a few weeks ago.”
Most projections have Boston between 30-35 wins this season. But they may drastically underestimate the impact of Rondo who, when healthy, is a top-five point guard. If the Rondo-Bradley-Smart rotation can produce enough offense to keep the pressure off the Celtics big men, Boston could surprise some people this season.
One-on-one with ... Stan Van Gundy
On his NBC Sports radio show, Chris Mannix chatted with new Pistons head coach Stan Van Gundy about the upcoming season, his plans for Josh Smith and more.
Five questions with ... Joe Johnson
Q: The Nets leaned on you pretty hard offensively after Brook Lopez went down last season. How physically taxing was that on you?
Johnson: "It wasn’t that bad. I didn’t think there was any pressure on me. We came into last season with high expectations. The injuries really hurt us. I thought we all had to step up our play to make the postseason. Shaun Livingston was probably the biggest key for us because he stepped up and played point guard. So I don’t look at it as just me."
Q: What kind of role does Lionel Hollins envision for you?
Johnson: "I’m not sure it changes much. I’m still asked to make plays on both ends of the floor. I’m still running pick and rolls, running a few isolation plays. For the most part, he is trying to make it as simple and easy as possible."
Q: Style-wise, how different will the Nets be this year?
Johnson: "We’ll be up and down at times. I’m not sure if that is going to be our go-to. We have a lot of guys who can post up and make plays. We want to value each possession."
Q: Do you get any sense as to what Lionel can do for Brook Lopez?
Johnson: "I think he is going to be great for Brook. He wants Brook to rebound more and be more of a presence both on offense and defense. We need that."
Q: You are quietly in your 14th season. You ever give any thought to how long you might play?
Johnson: "I don’t. I don’t even think about it. My body is feeling great, so I’m just going to keep going. When it doesn’t, then we will see what happens."
Quote of the week ... J.R. Smith
"I mean, believe it or not, being the type of player I've been, it's a struggle. I'm not going to lie. Trying to think about the rest of the team over myself or my scoring is something that I never really had to do before. I've always been in a situation to score, [now I'm] in position to take my time and let the game come and let my teammates succeed more than myself, I think that's the ultimate win." -- J.R. Smith
Not surprising the player most scouts expected to have the most trouble adapting to the triangle is struggling with it. A noted gunner, Smith will have to show more patience to survive in this pass friendly offense.