Posted Oct 23, 2012 1:03 PM
For years Tim Duncan has run up and down the courts of the NBA wearing a poker face that is as much a part of his uniform as the black and white Spurs jersey.
Kawhi Leonard makes him look like a Chihuahua that just stuck its tongue into a wall socket.
As a rookie last season, Leonard never talked back to referees and barely carried on in-game conversations with his teammates.
There was a reason for that. He was too busy trying to learn the plays during an on-the-fly, crammed-in, no-training-camp, post-lockout 66-game schedule.
"I played mostly on instinct," Leonard explained.
If that's the case and one day Leonard happens to whisper a few lottery numbers into your ear, pay attention. His instincts are good.
The 21-year-old forward did more than just start 53 games last season on a veteran club that finished tied for the best record in the league, and he did more than average 7.9 points and 5.2 rebounds, earning a spot on the All-Rookie first team.
He got coach Gregg Popovich to start building a team that would make Leonard as much a permanent fixture of San Antonio as the Alamo.
"If the planets and agents and that sort of thing line up, we'd love for him to be a Spur for life," Popovich said.
It was a statement about where the Spurs are heading, this year and in the coming ones. After making no significant personnel changes during the offseason, they are a team that will expect and require improvement from within if a return trip to the Western Conference finals -- and maybe even a push for a fifth NBA championship -- is to be within reason. With the era of Duncan (who is 36), Ginobili (35) and Tony Parker (30) inevitably reaching an end, there is also a need to hand the baton to the next generation.
Few expected Leonard to be tabbed for a leading role in the next generation after he quietly slipped to the Spurs in a 2011 Draft-night deal that sent point guard George Hill to Indiana. What the Spurs figured to be getting was an in-your-face defender, tough rebounder and live-wire player to give the lineup a jolt.
The first and most egregious mistake by many was calling him the "next Bruce Bowen." Leonard is by no means Bowen. He is better. Much, much better.
He can dribble and pass the ball. He can rebound and bang around on the inside. He also defends like a hawk and can nail the 3-point shot out of the corner, just like Bowen. (His one weakness was supposed to be his outside shot, yet he finished up his rookie season shooting 37.6 percent from behind the 3-point line. He raised that to 45 percent in the playoffs.)
He's also a decade younger and much further ahead of where Bowen was on those championship teams. During a blink-and-you-missed-it season that had many NBA veterans' heads spinning, what Leonard showed most, though, was remarkable consistency and composure.
He does it all while looking like a guy who could take off his mask only to reveal another mask.
"On the court, I know I've got to communicate more," Leonard said. "Last year it was more me not knowing what to say. I didn't know all the defensive rotations or all the offenses we were running."
"I don't think he ever gets excited," Duncan said. "He's absolutely even keel all of the time. I think he's even more mellow than me, if that's possible."
Yet Popovich went so far over the summer to label him the future face of the franchise.
In Game 3 of the Spurs' second-round playoff series in L.A. last spring, the Clippers opened up a 21-point lead in the second quarter. Popovich was very close to pulling all of his starters to save them for Game 4, which was coming on a rare back-to-back situation in the playoffs.
But just before the game went completely over the edge, Leonard took charge, grabbing rebounds, making stops, draining buckets and pulling his team back. When the Spurs used a 24-0 run in the third quarter for the win, on their way to a 4-0 sweep of the series, much of the attention, as usual, went to the Big Three of Duncan, Ginobili and Parker.
But many inside the locker room were stunned at the way the rookie held it all together. Best player on the floor, some said.
So now it's time for the second step. After continuing to work with shooting coach Chip Engelland to polish his outside shot and add a dribble drive, Leonard went to the Las Vegas Summer League and averaged 25 points in two games.
As Popovich continues to keep a rein on the minutes of Duncan and Ginobili, the coach plans to put the ball in Leonard's hands even more this season, using him in the pick and roll, getting the boost the Spurs need now while making that transition to the future. Leonard has struggled with his shot in the preseason -- 24.4 percent from the field, 15.4 percent on 3-pointers -- but nobody in San Antonio is worried.
"We expect more from him this year," Duncan said. "We'll see what load he's ready to carry."
"He's the one guy that nobody ever seems to talk about," Ginobili said.
For the future face of the franchise, that might be about to change. Even if his expression doesn't.
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