Need he say more? Kawhi Leonard's evolving game speaks for itself
Kawhi Leonard shuffles through an unmarked door in the back of the Spurs' practice facility, hair neatly braided, eyes hooded, gaze vacant. It's preseason media day, an event that excites the San Antonio players as much as another trip to the Alamo. Tim Duncan has come and gone, his three-minute group interview highlighted by the revelation that, yes, he did consider retirement before exercising his $10.3 million option. Manu Ginóbili has long since finished discussing the right-leg injury he suffered during the Finals. ("I'm feeling well," Ginóbili divulged.) And coach Gregg Popovich has retreated to his office after explaining why the core of his title-winning team remains intact. "We had a pretty good year," Popovich said. "I didn't see any reason to kick them out of town."
The Spurs have long been known as a team indifferent to attention and approval, but in just three seasons the 6'7" Leonard has emerged as their poster boy. He speaks slowly and rarely makes eye contact; an answer of longer than a few sentences constitutes a filibuster. After his Finals MVP performance against the Heat in June, his agent, Brian Elfus, was flooded with media requests. He forwarded them to Leonard, who chose just one -- Fully Uploaded, an online video series hosted by professional skateboarder Rob Dyrdek that features, among other things, Leonard and Dyrdek playing P-I-G while wearing oversized foam hands. At media day, when a national reporter asked for a 30-minute interview, Leonard turned him down. The request was whittled down to 15 minutes, then 10, then five. Still no. Finally Leonard agreed to speak for two minutes. In the middle of the practice floor. With a p.r. staffer hovering, counting down the seconds.
Leonard's reticence didn't begin when he joined the Spurs. He comes by it naturally. He's the kid who shuttered himself in his room on his birthdays because he didn't want the attention. He's the teenager who, while at San Diego State, brought two lamps from home for his early-morning workouts because the school wouldn't turn on the lights. He's the small forward who spent the night of the 2012 draft at the Spurs practice facility. Why is that relevant? Because the draft that year was held on June 28. Leonard's birthday -- his 21st -- was June 29. On a night most spend playing beer pong and swilling tequila, Leonard was polishing his midrange game. "He never wants to be in the limelight," Popovich says. "He's like Timmy: All he is worried about is getting better."
And he is. Last season Leonard averaged career highs in scoring (12.8 points), field goal percentage (52.2) and three-point percentage (37.9). He did it, Popovich said, "having a couple of more plays run for him than we ran for [former Spurs role player] Mario Elie." (Translation: not many.) Leonard's ascent to the top tier of perimeter stoppers continued too: He was named second team All-Defense and stuffed himself into the shirts of James Harden, Kevin Durant and LeBron James during San Antonio's march to its fifth championship in 16 seasons. "There are not many guys in this league who can defend multiple positions at a high level," says Thunder coach Scott Brooks. "He's one of them."
The Spurs' Big Three -- Duncan, 38, Ginóbili, 37, and Tony Parker, 32 -- each played at least 66 games last season; matching that number again would qualify as a huge success. And their bench was the top scoring unit (45.1 points) in the league. With his broad shoulders and suction-cup hands -- 11¼" from thumb to pinkie -- the 23-year-old Leonard is the player with the deepest well of untapped potential, the one who can keep the Duncan-led dynasty going one more year. And, perhaps, be the face of a new one.
Let's begin with the name: Kawhi. "That's from his father," says Leonard's mother, Kim Robertson. "He told me Kawhi was the name of an African prince. I told him if he got to pick the name, I got to spell it." He was born in Los Angeles, and the family, which included two daughters from Kim's previous relationship, moved east to Moreno Valley when Kawhi was barely a year old. Kim and Kawhi's father, Mark Leonard, divorced when he was five. He stayed in Moreno Valley with his mother.
Kawhi took to sports quickly, though he was not especially big or athletic. "I don't think anyone looked at him growing up and said, That kid is going pro," says his uncle Dennis Robertson. After Leonard's sophomore year at Canyon Springs High, he decided two things: He was done with football, which he had only played as a freshman, and he was done with Canyon Springs. The team was small, though, which forced Leonard, then 6'4", to play in the paint. To develop his skills on the perimeter, he transferred the next year to Martin Luther King High in Riverside. "I believed I could play in the NBA," says Leonard. "I was focused on that."
After his dad was killed, Leonard went to his room. "When we went to check on him," an uncle recalls, "he just said, 'I'm good.'"
The hours after school were spent hustling back and forth among three gyms—the Orange Terrace Park community center, an LA Fitness club and UC Riverside -- running drills on any open court and playing as long as the lights stayed on. He was a naturally ferocious rebounder and defender, so Leonard worked to add layers to his offensive game. "From Day One he was driven to be great," says former King coach Tim Sweeney. "He already had all the intangibles. He didn't have to score to help us win games. But he worked as hard as any player who came through here."
Mark Leonard owned a car wash on the 400 block of North Wilmington Avenue in Compton. Around 6:15 p.m. on Jan. 18, 2008, police responded to reports of gunshots at his location. When they arrived, they found Mark shot multiple times. He was pronounced dead half an hour later. Kawhi, then a junior, was riding home from a game with his mom and Dennis when he got a call from two of Mark's daughters. "He said, 'Mom, they said that my dad died,'" says Kim. Frantic, Kim asked what had happened. Slumped in his seat, Kawhi could only stare back. "When we got to the house," says Dennis, "he went upstairs to his room. When we went to check on him, he just said, 'I'm good.'"
The next day King had a game against Compton Dominguez, a big rival. "He didn't want to miss it," says Kim. "The court was his outlet." In the locker room before the game teammates quietly patted Leonard on the shoulder. "Most of us had never dealt with anything like that," says Jeremy Castleberry, Leonard's former teammate and best friend. "It was all so fresh." Leonard scored 17 points in a 68--60 loss. On his way off the floor he pivoted toward his mother and collapsed in her arms.
Leonard doesn't like to talk about his father. Not with the media, not with family, not with friends. "It hurts him on the inside," says Castleberry. "But you are either going to stop or let it push you to be successful. He just pushed forward. For a 16-year-old to have that type of poise is amazing." The case is still unsolved, and Leonard has said he doesn't want to know who did it. If anything, his father's death only intensified his focus on basketball.
Considered a tweener at forward, Leonard was lightly recruited as a junior; when San Diego State showed the most interest, he committed early. Leonard blossomed in his senior year at King—he was California's Mr. Basketball—and showed flashes of the competitiveness that has come to define him. Matched against undefeated Mater Dei in the CIF-Southern Section Division I-AA championship, Leonard was brilliant, with 11 points, 20 rebounds, six blocks and three steals in King's win. "That was one of the best teams in America," says Sweeney. "And Kawhi dominated them."
Dennis recalls one of the last conversations he had with Kawhi before he left for San Diego State. "I said, 'Enjoy yourself in college,'" says Dennis. "And he looked at me and said, 'Uncle, I'm only going for two years. Then I'm going pro.' No way did I think then that he would be ready after two years. I was wrong."
San Antonio's film room is tucked into the back of the practice facility, with four elevated rows of seats facing a 70-inch flat screen flanked by dry-erase boards. On draft nights the space is converted into a war room. Tensions are high on those evenings -- especially for a team that frequently scours the globe for hidden gems late in the draft -- but never more so than in 2011. The Spurs had a list of players they liked and an asset, backup guard George Hill, several teams coveted. But, says general manager R.C. Buford, there was only one player they would surrender Hill for: Leonard. He was still on the board when the Pacers, picking 15th, came up, and they wanted Hill. San Antonio had five minutes to decide. "We were scared to death," Popovich says. "For a while we were just staring at each other. It was an unbelievably tough call."
Hill was 25, beloved by the players and trusted by the coaches. Leonard had played just two years at San Diego State, primarily at power forward. Still, the Spurs knew they needed to take a chance. The proliferation of dynamic small forwards, from Durant to James to Carmelo Anthony, had made the position increasingly important. San Antonio had been trying to fill that spot since Bruce Bowen retired in 2009. "At that time we were really small," says Popovich. "Having a 6'8", 6'9" three man wasn't that unusual anymore. Those guys weren't available in free agency. We were often stuck playing Manu or Danny Green [both 6'6"] there. Kawhi had all the attributes we were looking for. So we decided to roll the bones."
After the draft the Spurs had another problem: The impending lockout left the coaching staff only a few days to work with Leonard. At the predraft combine, assistant Chip Engelland, a widely respected shooting coach, noted a few flaws in Leonard's form. "He didn't need a makeover," says Engelland. "Just a tune-up." On Leonard's first day at the team facility he huddled with Engelland on the practice floor. On an iPad, Engelland showed Leonard three photos. The first was of Leonard shooting. The next shot was of forward Richard Jefferson before he came to San Antonio. The third was of Kobe Bryant, whose form is among the most fundamentally sound in the NBA. Like Jefferson, Leonard's arms extended behind his head when he shot. Engelland noted that Jefferson, an eight-year veteran, agreed to make adjustments when he joined San Antonio. The result: In his second season he fired a career-best 44.0 percent from three-point range. Engelland asked Leonard if he would be willing, like Jefferson, to hone his stroke to resemble Kobe's. "Wanting to change your shot is very personal," says Engelland. "A lot of players don't want to do it. Kawhi agreed right away."
For three days Leonard and Engelland ran drills focused on committing the revamped shot to muscle memory. Still, the lockout made Engelland nervous. With coaches barred from contact with players, Leonard was on his own. When the lockout ended, however, Engelland was shocked by how much Leonard had improved. "Making this kind of change, you get worse before you get better," says Engelland. "It's easy to get discouraged. But he stuck with it."
In camp the Spurs eased Leonard into his role. At first Popovich worried that Leonard would be burdened by the pressure of replacing a fan favorite like Hill. He wasn't. "I talked to him about what he might read in a story or hear on the radio," says Popovich. "Little did I know he wasn't interested in reading stories or listening to the radio."
On the court Popovich expected Leonard to emulate Bowen -- defend, rebound and make the corner three. Playing D came easy. "With some of the best players, you double here, do something else there, anything to make their life harder," says Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer, a former San Antonio assistant. "With Kawhi, we discovered it was best to just turn him loose and let him do everything he can to make [opponents'] life miserable." And the Spurs quickly determined that the Bowen comparison was not an apt one. "Bruce had no moves," says Popovich with a laugh. "He couldn't dribble and he couldn't pass. But he was a hell of a defender. Kawhi has offensive abilities Bruce could never dream of."
Take the three-pointer: Last season Leonard sank a career-high 37.9 percent on his career-high 182 trey attempts, mixing locations between the corner and the wing. Popovich pushed Leonard to be more aggressive, never harder than in the Finals against Miami. With the series knotted 1--1, Popovich sat his small forward down. Leonard had attempted just 14 shots in the first two games, and Popovich needed him to do more. Stop thinking out there, Popovich told him. Be aggressive. Play your game. "If he picked up a couple of quick fouls, his game would stop," says Popovich. "We needed him to get over that."
That same night Pop ran into Leonard and his mother at a restaurant. The coach draped his arm around Leonard and told him how much the team needed him. Kim told Popovich he needed to give Kawhi the green light. "I told her he's got it," says Popovich. The next three games Leonard averaged 23.7 points on 68.6 percent shooting.
There will be a few more plays in the book for him this season, especially in the post, where Leonard can utilize his sturdy 230-pound frame. Popovich frequently refers to Leonard as "the future of the Spurs." And there is a reason. "You can only talk to somebody so much [before] they don't hear you anymore," says Popovich. "Him hearing it from [the media], maybe he starts to understand the responsibilities that come with that. It's not easy to come every night and do what the big guys do."
Leonard gets it. "I just want to keep improving, to keep getting better," he says. When the interview is up -- after 2:05, to be exact -- Leonard shakes hands and disappears into the weight room. It will be a while before he speaks to any reporters one-on-one again. Off the court he's as quotable as his Spurs elders. On the court Leonard has a chance to be just as good too.