Through it all, through the wins and the losses, the big shots and the big misses, Kawhi Leonard remained stoic. With little change in his facial expression, he moved from assignment to assignment. But long before 21-year-old had his breakout moments in the NBA Finals, long before he finished the series averaging 14.5 points on 51.3 percent shooting to go along with 11.1 rebounds, long before he did all this while dealing with LeBron James – the toughest defensive assignment in basketball – Spurs’ Coach Gregg Popovich had already anointed the young man as the future of his franchise.
“I think he’s going to be a star,” Popovich, one of the greatest coaches in NBA history, said of Leonard before the beginning of last season
. “And as time goes on, he’ll be the face of the Spurs, I think. At both ends of the court, he is really a special player. And what makes me be so confident about him is that he wants it so badly. He wants to be a good player, I mean a great player.”
To some, the thought of Popovich eventually handing the mantle of a legendarily successful franchise from Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili into the hands of a relatively unknown youngster seemed odd and unbelievable. To others, Leonard’s maturity and calm at a young age reminded him of the man who had carried the Spurs for the past decade and a half -- Duncan -- and they believed that perhaps this stone-faced rookie could indeed be the team’s future.
Long before any predictions for the Spurs, Popovich welcomed Leonard into the NBA with a loss. In trading for Leonard -– who was the 15th pick in the 2011 Draft –- Popovich had to part ways with point guard George Hill, one of his favourite young players. But it was a necessary sacrifice for the Spurs to manage their cap space, and in return, the team hoped that they had landed a true student of the game.
"There's nobody who's more focused and more serious about what he's doing than Kawhi," said Andrew Moore, the director of Impact Basketball Academy Player Development, who worked with Leonard before draft night in 2011. "He's just a pure basketball guy... He comes in every day and there's no sideshow, nothing else going on.”
People now talk of Leonard’s incredible motor, his ability to keep running and working at the same intensity throughout a long NBA game. They talk of his elite rebounding ability from his position. They talk of his defensive intelligence. His three-point shot. His improving skill at putting on the ball on the floor and making plays at the offensive end.
But long before he made every aspect of his game known and appreciated worldwide in the NBA Finals, long before getting drafted into the NBA, before he enjoyed two successful seasons with the San Diego State Aztecs, Leonard’s life changed forever, and a 16-year-old kid was forced to become a man overnight.
On January 18, 2008, Mark Leonard, Kawhi’s father, was shot and killed at the car wash he owned in Compton, California. A day later, 16-year-old Kawhi, representing Riverside King High School, scored 17 points in a loss to Compton Domingquez. After the game, he broke down and cried in his mother’s arms. In the following years of the quiet young man’s life, it was this tragedy that received more attention than his work on the court. But even through tragedy, Leonard continued progressing to make that on-court work better.
A few years later, his uncle Dennis Robertson would say that being quiet was always in Kawhi’s nature. Perhaps the untimely death of his father added to the singular, meditative focus on to the game, the competitive fire that pushed him to success. Or perhaps, he always had passion and focus for the game and continued in his stride forward. The answer doesn’t really matter. Leonard brought his intense, concentrated game through high school to college to NBA Draft Night to starting for the Spurs and ultimately to the biggest stage in basketball: the NBA Finals.
Leonard’s rapid improvement made him a core component for the Spurs and a major reason why they were just one game (or a wild Ray Allen three) away from winning an NBA Championship. But long before he became a roadblock for LeBron and the Heat, he became, as Impact’s Moore called him ‘a pure basketball guy’. The Spurs lost in the Finals, but they gained confidence in Popovich’s prediction: that the young Leonard could indeed be the face of the franchise one day. Leonard may or may not have been shaped by his past, but he is definitely in complete control to shape his bright future.