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Spurs' Leonard developing into next 'face of the franchise'

A second straight Kia Defensive Player of the Year award appears to be just the beginning for the 24-year-old forward

POSTED: Apr 18, 2016 4:17 PM ET

By Fran Blinebury

BY Fran Blinebury

NBA.com

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It's a franchise where the torch is passed so effortlessly and with such little fanfare that sometimes it's hard to notice when it turns up in a different pair of hands.

It moves from David Robinson to Tim Duncan to Tony Parker to Manu Ginobili and through the years the Spurs barely change their grip or the expression on their faces.

It is Kawhi Leonard's turn and the accolades could just be starting. Already an NBA Finals MVP (2014) and an All-Star for the first time in February, the 24-year-old Leonard will likely finish high in the Most Valuable Player voting and become an annual contender for the honor.

For now, Leonard has been named Kia Defensive Player of the Year for the second straight season, only the eighth player in history to get the award in consecutive seasons and the first non-center to win back-to-back since Dennis Rodman in 1990 and 1991.

In the Spurs' orbit, the fifth-year forward may even have laid claim to title of best defender in franchise history, eclipsing the dogged, relentless Bruce Bowen, whose retired jersey hangs from the rafters of the AT&T Center.

"It's not a big competition," said Ginobili. "It's him or Bruce. Bruce was remarkable. He did less plays that draw up highlights but he was as consistent as it gets.

"With Kawhi, the fact that he gets blocks and steals and dunks, that type of play draws more attention. But both are just incredible. And it's not easy to get a Defensive Player of the Year Award. There are 450 players out there competing every night. What he does -- what they did -- every night is superb."

"It's always hard when they say he's going to be the next this, the next that," Parker said. "It's somewhere you can aim. When I first came, they showed me stuff about Avery Johnson. But I wanted to aim higher. I'm sure Kawhi was the same. Bruce is the standard for us, defensively. He just aimed higher."

Kawhi Leonard Interview

NBA TV's Rashan Ali interviews the 2015-16 Kia Defensive Player of the Year, San Antonio forward Kawhi Leonard.

Deliberately quiet and with so little fanfare, Leonard has steadily expanded his role and his influence on the Spurs to the point where everybody else has to talk about him, even when he won't do it himself.

It was Leonard's huge hand prints that were all over the Spurs 106-74 throttling of the Grizzlies in Game 1 of the playoffs on Sunday night as he scored 20 points, made four steals, blocked three shots and virtually smothered Memphis right from the start. It was the kind of all-around effort that had prompted coach Gregg Popovich to famously pronounce four years ago that Leonard would one day become the face of the franchise.

"Well, when he got here I realized what his work ethic was and how quickly he learned," Popovich said. "Every player doesn't have the ability to learn. Some stay the same. But he would be shown something by one of us and he would pick it up very quickly. He would come back in the gym and he would work on it again.

"As we saw him playing, you could tell pretty quickly that he was something special because of his physical attributes. They were pretty obvious. When you look at him — his shoulders, his wingspan, his hands, his foot speed, those kind of things — then when you put the work ethic together with the ability to learn, we knew pretty quickly we had something special."

Leonard had to be special from the start, if for no other reason than to stifle the complaints from his new teammates when the front office traded respected and beloved point guard George Hill to Indiana on draft night 2011 for the right to make him the 15th pick in the draft.

"The campers were not happy when we came in and told them what we did," Popovich said. "I don't blame them. What did they know about Kawhi at the time? But we did it and it seems to have worked out for both teams."

All-Star Top 10: Kawhi Leonard

Check out the top 10 plays from Western Conference All-Star Kawhi Leonard!

It was one thing to make the trade and another thing entirely for the hardly-effusive Popovich to make the bold statement about Leonard carrying the franchise.

"I think he said it pretty much from the get-go," Parker recalled. "At the time, you have to trust Pop and (general manager) R.C. (Buford) obviously. They did a great job. You can see he was a pretty good defender. They told us he was going to be the next Bruce Bowen. We didn't know he was going to be that good offensively. I think even Pop and R.C. didn't know he was going to be that good offensively. Stuff like that you can't know. He's talented and he's got potential. But if he's gonna fulfill it, it depends on a lot of stuff -- the work ethic, is he gonna work hard, does he want it, is he motivated to great. All that stuff it's hard to know if it's going to happen. We knew he was talented, that's for sure."

Ginobili shakes his head.

"I don't remember when (Pop) said it," he said. "I didn't see it after the first season. I could tell he was going to be a very good player but I only realized he was going to be what he has become was during the first Finals (2013), when he was taking over and pressure didn't bother him and he competed against LeBron, D-Wade and everybody as just another guy. That's when we all realized he was special.

"We all knew he was going to be good but it's always hard to tell after a rookie season who is going to be an MVP candidate. You knew with LeBron or (Kevin) Durant because they were a different breed almost, but (with Kawhi) we saw it after a couple years, or a year-and-a-half."

This was his breakout season offensively with Leonard averaging a team-high 21.2 points to go with 6.8 rebounds, 2.6 assists, shooting 50.6 percent from the field, including a sizzling 44.3 from behind the 3-point line. He did all that while being the front man in a Spurs defense that ranked No. 1 in the league for the first time in 10 years and was the foundation for a team record 67 regular season wins.

"I felt like we all did a great job this year going into each and every game," Leonard said. "Just being focused, knowing the team's game plan, the personnel and just striving to stop the other team. I just hide behind them in the game, really."

The torch gets passed and the heat never fades.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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