When the San Antonio Spurs first introduced Kawhi Leonard to the media after the 2011 NBA Draft he humbly said he was ready to do whatever coach “Pop” wanted him to do.
Leonard’s comment might one day hold significant meaning in the franchise’s history.
Now, almost two years have passed since that moment, and Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich (“Pop”) has referred to Leonard as the “future face of the franchise.”
With an injury-hit team, especially among their senior players, the 21-year-old’s recent contribution cannot be overlooked in any way.
Any recent mention to the Spurs almost inevitably has a mention of the 2011 15th overall NBA Draft pick.
Remember those days when the Spurs’ success relied on the big-3 Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, and Manu Ginobili?
Well, those days are imminently over – let’s say, for good - with the arrival of Leonard who has added a breath of fresh air to the team.
Perhaps it is time to refer to the Spurs’ big-3 plus Leonard.
Although Duncan, Ginobili, and Parker are still extremely efficient, Leonard’s game has risen to the trio’s standards.
The 6-foot-7 forward’s starter role can only be interpreted as a transitional period for the Spurs, especially as veteran Ginobili has turned into some kind of crucial sixth man.
The past two months have been a turning point for Leonard as he went from averaging 8.5 points in the first four months of the season to contributing 15 points per game between February and mid-March.
A home win over conference rivals Oklahoma City Thunder (105-93) a couple of weeks ago, not only confirmed the Spurs as the Western Conference leaders, but has boosted Spurs’ chances for a No.1 Playoff seed.
This is rewarding news for a team who has lost its key playmaker Tony Parker who suffered a left ankle sprain in early March and is expected to be out for approximately four weeks.
So far, Leonard recorded a season-high 26 points, in a 103-89 away win vs. the Bulls with Ginobili, Duncan, and Parker out of the team.
As of mid-March, he is shooting nearly 50% from the field and is showing so much maturity.
With the Playoffs just around the corner, Leonard has become a serious contender for the NBA revelation player of the year because of his impact within the team.
But Leonard is not alone in the Spurs revamp.
Tiago Splitter and Danny Green have added substantial caliber to the Spurs too.
“They are maturing right in front of our eyes,” Tim Duncan said recently.
However, coach “Pop” described how Leonard reached such a form: “He’s been doing what he feels is available to him, what the defense allows.”
“He’s just becoming more aggressive in a variety of situations. It doesn't matter where he is on the court, we want him to think about being an aggressive scorer and he’s developed that very quickly for a young guy,” he said.
Although Leonard has turned into a high scorer, his defense is seen as one of his strongest points.
He usually guards the opponent’s main scoring threat, as “Pops” puts it: “He’s our so called stopper-in-training. It doesn't matter what team we’re playing. That’s the guy he’s going to take.”
Not bad for a second-year player.
Should Leonard remain injury-free, it is going to be intriguing to watch him in the upcoming Playoffs.