Kawhi Leonard: A Long Reach For Excellence

Ken Rodriguez is a San Antonio native who covered his first Spurs game in 1981 for The Daily Texan, the University of Texas student newspaper. He spent 26 years in the newspaper business -- 21 of them covering sports -- before joining the marketing department at Our Lady of the Lake University in 2009. His Spurs.com column will appear every Wednesday.

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(D. Clarke Evans/Getty Images)

When Spurs rookie Kawhi Leonard extends his arms horizontally, as if to fly, the space between his left and right fingertips can be measured in units of “wow.”

All 7-feet-1 inch of Shaquille O’Neal’s length could fit in that space. At 6-foot-11, Tim Duncan could fit with three-inch heels. Wow.

Now consider a truth about human anatomy: Arm reach, or wingspan, is generally proportional to height. For example, at 6-foot-7 in sneakers, Leonard should have a wingspan to match, somewhere in the 6-6 to 6-8 inch range. But Leonard’s wingspan measures 7-3 -- a good seven to eight inches beyond the norm for his height. Double wow.

The Spurs loved Leonard’s freakish length when they traded for him on draft day. They also loved his massive hands, his explosive starts and sudden stops, his willingness to play D. The wide space between those long arms represented a metaphor for his potential. What no one expected was Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich to put a name and face on that potential two weeks into the season.

After Leonard shut down Houston’s Kevin Martin during the final, critical stretch of an overtime victory on Jan. 11, Pop recognized bits of Bruce Bowen, one of the great perimeter defenders in NBA history. “It’s huge for us,” Pop said in his post-game remarks, “to have a guy on the team that can do similar things to what Bruce did in the past.”

Tripe wow.

The superlatives do not end with Pop. Leonard’s game impresses Bowen, an eight-time member of the NBA’s All Defensive Team. “I don’t think he’s Bruce,” says Bowen, whose No. 12 jersey the Spurs will retire in March. “I think he can be better than Bruce. I wish at 20 I looked like him.”

At age 20, Bowen played at Cal State Fullerton in shadow. He caught not a whiff of NBA attention as a sophomore and went undrafted as a senior. Leonard, meanwhile, played in the bright light of promise. After two seasons at San Diego State, Leonard became a Spur. 

At Leonard’s age, Bowen was fighting to establish himself in the Big West Conference. The rookie, meanwhile, was knocking down a preseason game-winner against the Houston Rockets. “I think he has all the natural skills,” Bowen says, “to become special.”

The Spurs recognized “special” right away. They phoned Indiana with a request: If “our guy” is available when you pick at No. 15, will you trade him for George Hill? The Pacers agreed, not knowing who the Spurs wanted. When Kawhi remained available after the 14th pick, the Spurs called again. The trade is on. Select Kawhi Leonard.

As far back as he can remember, Leonard has enjoyed playing defense, suffocating shooters, forcing turnovers, using his long arms to create havoc. As a senior at Martin Luther King High in Riverside, he guarded the opponents’ best player while averaging 22.6 points, 13.1 rebounds and 3.9 assists. He also averaged three blocks a game and was named Mr. Basketball California. “I always wanted to play both ends of the floor,” Leonard says. “I never wanted to be one dimensional.”

He looked multi-dimensional in college. Leonard led San Diego State in scoring and steals, the Mountain West Conference in rebounding and propelled the Aztecs to their first NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 appearance. Then he declared for the draft.

Some projected Leonard as a Top 10, possibly Top 5 pick. Others wondered if he’d left college too soon. The lockout prevented Leonard from working out with Spurs coaches over the summer. A truncated training camp didn’t help his development. But then Manu Ginobili broke his hand and Leonard slid from the bench to an unexpected baptism.

Kawhi, you’ve got Kevin Durant.

Durant got his points -- 21 in a Thunder victory on Jan. 8 -- but Leonard made an impression. He played fearlessly, aggressively and forced one turnover. “I wasn’t nervous at all,” Leonard says. “I was just excited to get into the game.”

Every night, Leonard draws a tough assignment. Durant. LeBron James. Kevin Martin. Rudy Gay. Every night, Leonard embraces the challenge. “That’s rare,” says Spurs guard Gary Neal.

How rare? As rare as the wide open space between Leonard’s extended arms.


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