Kawhi Leonard makes strong case for MVP

Kawhi Leonard told the San Antonio Spurs before his rookie season that he wanted to be a great player. Since then, he has been relentless in progressing toward that lofty status.

As a rookie in 2011-12, Leonard started in the Western Conference finals. Two years later, he was named NBA Finals MVP at age 22. Leonard earned his first All-Star selection last season, the same year he won his second Kia NBA Defensive Player of the Year award in a row. And this season, his ascension is complete: The 25-year-old forward is a leading candidate for the league’s MVP award.

Leonard faces stiff competition for the honor, which will be revealed at the league’s first-ever NBA Awards Show in New York (June 26, TNT). In one of the most buzzed-about MVP races of all time, the Spurs’ two-time All-Star is joined by Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James, Houston Rockets guard James Harden and Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook as the widely regarded front-runners.

As voters prepare to fill out their ballots for the NBA’s premier individual award, Leonard will take the national stage on Saturday at 8:30 p.m. ET when the Spurs host Chris Paul and the LA Clippers during ABC’s last regular-season matchup of the year.

The primetime showcase gives Leonard another opportunity to display the all-around game that has helped San Antonio extend its NBA record of consecutive 50-win seasons to 18.

He is scoring a career-high 25.9 points a game, putting him on track to become the first Spur to average at least 25 points in a season since Tim Duncan in 2001-02. Leonard has more than tripled his scoring average from his rookie season, thanks in part to intensive work on his jump shot. A 25 percent shooter from the shorter college three-point line during his two years at San Diego State, Leonard has developed into an above-average 38.5 percent three-point shooter in the NBA.

Leonard’s offensive development provides the perfect complement to his stifling defense. Behind Leonard, San Antonio leads the NBA in defensive rating this season despite the offseason retirement of Duncan, who anchored the franchise’s D for nearly two decades.

Extraordinary play on both ends of the court for an elite team makes for a strong MVP case. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich would know: He watched Duncan use the same formula to win the award twice.

“Glad I don’t have to vote,” Popovich told reporters recently about this season’s MVP race. “Of course, you know who I’d vote for. Coaches are prejudiced.”

Here’s what others are saying about Leonard’s MVP candidacy:

“If voters are paying attention, taking both ends of the court seriously and seeing past the pinball machine point totals, Kawhi Leonard will win in a landslide.” – Fran Blinebury, NBA.com

“[Russell] Westbrook and James Harden have been the runaway candidates for the league’s Most Valuable Player award all season long, and for a good reason: The two are on a tear the NBA hasn’t seen in decades. But Leonard has silently reminded the league why his name should always be mentioned when discussing the season’s most coveted award.” – Kristian Winfield, SB Nation

“Leonard may not have the eye-popping statistics of [Russell] Westbrook or Rockets guard James Harden … but the Spurs star has been a defensive stalwart in leading his team to a 7-2 combined record opposite Westbrook, Harden and Cleveland’s LeBron James.” – Ben Rohrbach, Yahoo! Sports

“If he were to be named MVP this season, Kawhi Leonard would undoubtedly be the most understated winner in modern NBA history. But the phlegmatic 25-year-old small forward would be a superbly on-brand representative for a Spurs team that once again has flown under the radar all season long, despite challenging the Golden State Warriors for the best record in the league.” – Max Rappaport, Complex

“I think he’s very much deserving of getting the MVP this season. The way he’s playing, the way he’s contributing on both ends of the floor. He’s not the guy that just puts up 30 points and that’s it. He makes huge plays defensively. So, to me, he’s my MVP.” – Pau Gasol, San Antonio Spurs center

“San Diego State star Kawhi Leonard should be the NBA’s MVP. … Not only is Leonard the league’s best defensive player, hands down, he’s a more efficient scorer on the other end as well. And there’s this: Leonard’s team owns more wins than those of Westbrook, Harden and Cavaliers star LeBron James.” – Bryce Miller, The San Diego Union-Tribune