By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com
POSTED: Oct 16, 2013 8:16 AM ET
This could be the season in which Kawhi Leonard boosts his numbers across the board.
Tim Duncan took some time to lay low, decompress from another long season and deal with a heartbreaking loss to the Heat in the NBA Finals.
Spurs Season Preview: Tony Parker
Manu Ginobili went straight to the beach with his family to soak up the sun and recharge his batteries.
Tony Parker spent much of his time running up and down the court and toiling away for the French national team that won the first EuroBasket championship in his country's history and then celebrated with champagne.
So, did you do anything for fun over the summer, Kawhi Leonard?
"No," he said.
It was not a joke, or an opening line to a funny story.
What you see is what you get with Leonard and that's precious little once he steps outside the lines of the basketball court.
A year ago, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich called him "the future face of the franchise" and 12 months later that face is still mostly an expressionless mask that belies the fire that burns deep inside.
Leonard will quite comfortably tell you that he wants to become "a superstar player." The 22-year-old will also tell you that nothing he has done in his first two pro seasons -- guarding LeBron James in The Finals, performing as consistently through the playoffs as any Spurs player this side of the future Hall of Famer Duncan -- was the least bit surprising.
"Not at all," Leonard said. "People asked me those questions in The Finals. Was I shocked about my performance? Nah, not really."
Spurs Season Preview: Tim Duncan
Nevertheless, the rest of the basketball world was impressed to start believing that Popovich wasn't simply blowing smoke about Leonard's potential.
With Duncan 37, Ginobili 36 and even Parker, the youngest member of the Big Three, now 31, it will be incumbent upon the 6-foot-7 small forward to take on more of the nightly offensive burden and be more of a forceful presence on the court for the veteran Spurs to make a run at another Western Conference title.
In short, the Spurs probably need a jump by Leonard up to an All-Star level this season in order to keep fighting off the advances of time.
Can he do it? It's been a legitimate question since Leonard showed flashes of the right stuff during his rookie season. Now he enters his third NBA season, a time when others before him -- Paul George, Luol Deng, even Kevin Durant -- took big steps in their careers. It's a time when he could go from contributor to a difference-maker, using his Finals experience as a springboard.
"I think Kawhi is the new Parker-Ginobili-Duncan kind of guy," Popovich said. "He's going to take over as the star of the show as time goes on. Timmy and Manu have obviously figured out a way to play very well and be at the top of their games at their age. Tony Parker is still young enough to be the star that he is. But he'll get older, too. That's where Kawhi comes in. He's been phenomenal. He's improved more quickly than any player we've ever had. His mindset is such that he wants to be great. He has all the reasons to be. We've got to put him a position to be a great player."
That's a difference from draft night in 2011 when the Spurs rolled the dice by trading point guard George Hill to the Pacers for the No. 15 pick that was used on Leonard.
Spurs Season Preview: Coach's Corner
"When we made that trade, we were scared to death," said Popovich. "Georgie was one of my favorite guys, individually. A hell of a player. He does a great job for the Pacers. It might be one of the best trades I've ever seen, because both players have become so important for their respective teams. Indiana was helped tremendously getting George. We were helped tremendously getting Kawhi. That doesn't happen that often. Usually they're one-sided or something."
The truth is that the four-point increase in Leonard's scoring from his first to his second season was mostly just a result of more minutes played. His per-36-minute average went only from 11.9 to 13.7. Of course, it might help this time around that Popovich promises to finally call a play or two for Leonard and could push him out on the court for up to 40 minutes a night. All of which is fine with Leonard.
"I go into each offseason trying to prepare myself to be mentally better and focused in the next season to be a better player than I was," he said. "That's just my expectations for myself, just to get better, do a better job than I did last season in every aspect that I can.
"I guess I'm just happy that he sees my hard work, that it paid off. I don't feel nothing of it. It's just the game of basketball. It's not about to change the way I am on the floor. I'm just gonna try to do a better job of playing harder and smarter on each possession."
That's the fun behind the mask, even if Kawhi Leonard never lets you see it.
Spurs Season Preview
1. Mark it down: Two seasons left in the Big Three Era. Tim Duncan (37), Manu Ginobili (36), Tony Parker (31) are signed through 2015.
2. How much more can Parker raise his offensive output if an increasingly fragile Ginobili can't get back to his Sixth Man of the Year Form?
3. Marco Belinelli steps into the spot vacated by Gary Neal to be the 3-point weapon off the bench for a team that loves to use it.
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