Usual fanfare accompanies Kawhi Leonard's MVP campaign

San Antonio's star is clearly one of the league's best players and (as usual) is doing his work quietly

From the look-at-me beard to the look-at-those numbers, James Harden could only make a more conspicuous entrance into any Kia Most Valuable Player conversation with bells on his toes and his hair on fire.

Then there’s Kawhi Leonard, whose comfortable place within a crowd is as the background wallpaper. Preferably gray and unlit.

It was five years ago when San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich labeled the rookie Leonard as the future face of the franchise. Now in the early part of his sixth NBA season, Leonard could very well be turning into the face of the entire league.

Stephen Curry keeps setting records and stretching the limits of the 3-point shooting game. Harden has even more of the ball placed in his hands by new coach Mike D’Antoni and gets to fill up the stat sheet at will. Russell Westbrook is practically given the deed to Oklahoma City. Soon-to-be-32-year-old LeBron James has to pace himself for he rigors of his 14th NBA season and the challenge of defending a title.

Leonard grinds.

“He just keeps getting better,” said Jazz coach Quin Snyder. “People talk about him being an MVP candidate and that’s right on.”

It’s only natural since Leonard finished runner-up in the voting to Curry last season. It’s logical because of how he’s exploded like a bottle rocket to start this season.

Now Harden and Leonard enter tonight’s game at the AT&T Center (9:30 ET, ESPN) from opposite ends of the hype meter.

After improving his scoring average in each of his first five NBA seasons and reaching 21.2 points per game in 2015-16, it seemed a stretch to ask Leonard to do much more. But through the first seven games, he’s averaging 26.4 points (7th in the league) and 2.4 steals (t-3rd).

Leonard opened the season with a spectacular 35 points, five steals, five rebounds and three assists in the shocking whipping of the Warriors, then came back with 30 points, five steals, five assists and three rebounds in the next game at Sacramento. In the past 25 years, Allen Iverson and Eddie Jones are the only other players to have at least 30 points and five steals in back-to-back games. In seven games, he’s hit the 30-point mark three times, just one less than all of last season.

All of the increased offensive production hasn’t come at any cost at the other end of the floor for the two-time reigning Kia Defensive Player of the Year. If you want somebody locked down, he’s better than handcuffs.

What it’s all added up to the first slice of the season is a Player Efficiency Rating (PER) that is a whopping 35.1. The record for a single season is 31.82 by Wilt Chamberlain in 1962-63. The only other members of the all-time top 10 for a season are named Michael Jordan, James and Curry.

“You can see the way he walks around or when he steps on the floor, he doesn’t want to just Defensive Player of the Year,” said teammate Patty Mills. “He wants to be the best player, all around. He definitely has the ability to do that.”

However, Leonard recently told Sam Amick of USA Today:“I’ll turn in all my MVPs if I get an NBA championship.”

It’s all happening in his first year working without the Hall of Fame net of Tim Duncan beneath him. He’s the leader on and off the court, becoming more vocal in the locker room. He’s used words of advice from Duncan to become better at taking defenders who get up close off the dribble, either getting to the basket or drawing fouls. His free throws per game have practically doubled in a year from 4.6 to 9.0.

Like Duncan, Leonard would rather play than talk about himself. Like Duncan, he’s a gym rat whose usually the first to practice and the last to leave. What he’s done every off-season is to brick-by-brick build his elite resume. This year preparing for the absence of Duncan was critical.

“Just becoming a leader,” he said. “Just making sure I know what’s going on (out) on the floor in every position. Just being ready to really get my mentality at leading this group this year, that’s pretty much it. Obviously all of the other aspects of my game. I worked on everything this summer, I didn’t really focus on one thing.

“I learned a lot, just by him making me better. Just really listening to him. I knew that he knew the game, and just seeing how he talked to players, or just guys like myself, and just being able to push for a title.”

All while pushing quietly into the MVP conversation.

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

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