In the 2014 NBA Finals, Kawhi Leonard made it apparent that he is ready to be the best player on the San Antonio Spurs. In the Finals, he revealed unthinkable fearlessness, unafraid to go toe to toe with the league’s best player on the biggest of stages. Last year, he held his ground versus LeBron James and the Miami Heat on defense, holding James to just over 25 points per game and under 45 percent shooting from the field. This year, Leonard guarded James once again, forcing him to make outside jump shots and frustrating him into countless turnovers.
Leonard, who was drafted with the 15th overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, is considered the biggest steal of his draft class. Since then, Leonard has started 161 regular-season games for the Spurs and has developed each and every year, culminating in 2014 NBA Finals MVP honors.
Out of San Diego State University, Leonard was considered a tweener, and finding a niche for him would be a challenge. Leonard only averaged 14 points per game on 45 percent shooting in college and was seen as a physical freak without much offensive skill. Gregg Popovich was the perfect coach for Leonard, as he is known for developing skill into basketball talent.
Using his 7-foot-3 wingspan and superior athleticism, Leonard has become an elite perimeter defender. Leonard’s defensive ability is to hard argue, as he constantly takes on the opposing team’s best perimeter player. This year, he was voted onto the NBA’s All Defensive Second Team after averaging 1.7 steals and 0.8 blocks.
On the other end, Leonard’s improvement has been astronomical. After shooting only 25 percent from behind the arc in his two year college career, Leonard has eclipsed the 37 percent mark in all three seasons he has played for the Spurs. He has shown glimpses of greatness from the perimeter, making pull-up jumpers off of the dribble and throwing down strong dunks, as seen in this year’s NBA Finals. He has also shown the ability to dominate smaller players in the post with a turnaround jumper.
The improvement is a testament to Leonard’s work ethic, which is most likely his greatest attribute. Popovich has talked about how Leonard is the first player in the gym and the last one to leave it on a daily basis. This work ethic has certainly helped him in gaining the trust of his veteran teammates. Popovich and these well-known veterans have predicted a break-out from Leonard for a while now, and next year may be the season that NBA fans see its full effects.
When Tim Duncan retires, Leonard will be ready to lead the Spurs from the perimeter on both sides of the ball. But really, as seen in the 2014 NBA Finals, he is ready to do so right now. Leonard’s shooting percentages may take a slight hit as he develops into his new role, but if his previous development is any indication, Leonard will certainly adjust. It is impossible to tell if Leonard, who Kevin Durant recently called a system player, would have improved this much in such a short amount of time with another team. Thankfully for Spurs fans, San Antonio stole Leonard, and he has developed into one of the NBA’s brightest talents.