Spurs' Kawhi Leonard named NBA defensive player of year
SAN ANTONIO (AP) Kawhi Leonard is keeping some Hall of Fame company.
The San Antonio forward was selected the NBA Defensive Player of the Year on Thursday, joining Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon as the only players to win the award and the NBA Finals MVP.
''It feels great,'' the 23-year-old Leonard said. ''Growing up as a kid, you're watching these players and you want to become who they are or get the accolades that they have. It just shows that hard work pays off.''
Leonard led the league in steals at 2.3 per game and has become the Spurs' primary individual defender.
Leonard received 37 first-place votes and 333 points from a panel of 129 writers and broadcasters. Golden State forward Draymond Green had 45 first-place votes, but appeared on fewer ballots and had 317 points. Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan finished third, receiving 32 first-place votes and 261 points.
The normally reserved Leonard did allow for an ''aw man'' and a huge smile when he was presented with the award in front of Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and several teammates, who arrived in San Antonio only hours earlier from Los Angeles. The Spurs beat the Clippers 111-107 in overtime Wednesday night to even the first-round series at a game apiece.
''This isn't the goal for our team at all,'' Leonard said about the award. ''Obviously, we want another championship. (Popovich) just wants me to keep pushing forward and try to help us win again this year.''
Not that Popovich had to remind Leonard.
When the Spurs began scouting Leonard at San Diego State, they were as impressed with his humility and work ethic as by his athleticism, 7-foot-3 wingspan and 9.8-inch long hands.
''(His qualities were) a defensive first mentality, being a good teammate,'' San Antonio general manager R.C. Buford. ''Working on his game and working on the things you need to develop, not just doing the things that you like to develop (as well as) the competitiveness.''
That is why Buford made the then unpopular decision to trade reserve point guard George Hill to Indiana for Leonard's rights. Leonard has rewarded Buford's faith over his four-year career.
Leonard was named to the All-Rookie Team in 2012 and All-Defensive Second Team last year. He also the Finals MVP last season after averaging 17.8 points on 61 percent shooting in leading the Spurs to a five-game victory over the Miami Heat for the Spurs' fifth championship.
After becoming the third-youngest player to win Finals MVP, Leonard has followed that up by becoming just the sixth forward to lead the league in steals since it began tracking that statistic 42 years ago. He joins David Robinson in 1993 and Alvin Robertson in 1986 as the only Spurs to win Defensive Player of the Year.
While teammate Tim Duncan has never won the individual defensive honor, the veteran power forward has had the greatest impact on Leonard's development aside from Popovich.
''(Duncan's) focus, his mindset going into every game,'' Leonard said. ''Playing both ends; wanting to shut his opponent down, just playing great team defense also. When a guy drives by me, he is there for the help side in the box so he doesn't get deflections and making the passes harder. Just learning his work ethic and his mindset going into every game (helped his development).''
Leonard is typically one of the last players to leave the team's practice facility, working with assistant coach Chad Forcier and Chip Engelland on jumpers and low-post moves.
''Our coaches are very engaged in that development,'' Buford said. ''They deserve a lot of the credit, but Kawhi's got to participate. They've worked hard to put a program together that has fit him individually.''
Despite the award and early success, Leonard said he still has much to learn.
''I'm still young, I feel I can get a lot better,'' he said. ''I don't know, I'm just going to keep striving and trying to help my team win the game, hopefully I'll keep getting better.''