by Peter Walsh

While future Hall of Famers Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili were the driving force behind the Spurs’ 2013 playoff run, it was Kawhi Leonard who had the most eye-opening performance during San Antonio’s epic Finals matchup with the Heat. Throughout the ’12-13 regular season, the second-year pro played his part by deferring to his teammates offensively and locking up the opponent’s best perimeter player on the other end. But once the Playoffs hit and the pressure mounted, Leonard stepped his game up and averaged 13.5 points and 9 boards (up from 11.9 and 6 during the regular season) while leading the team in minutes played, setting the bar high for his upcoming campaign.

Unfortunately, Leonard’s outstanding Finals showing won’t be remembered for his vicious dunk over Mike Miller or the effort he put forth defending the best basketball player on the planet. No, the Cali native’s breakout performance will be remembered for one play—a crucial missed free throw.

For those with short memories: Leonard stepped to the line in Game 6 with 19 seconds left and the Spurs up by two. Had he hit both, the Spurs would have been in position to clinch the franchise’s fifth Championship. But Leonard bricked the first to put the Spurs up by three, giving the Heat a chance with the clock winding down.

From there, Ray Allen hit one of the most incredible shots in NBA history; the Heat won Game 6 in overtime; went on to win their second straight Championship with a Game 7 dub; and popped bottles at club Story until the wee hours of the morning. Of course, all blame can’t be put on Leonard—who bounced back quickly from that miss and scored four out of the five Spurs’ points in overtime of Game 6—but it’s easy for talking heads and the like to make the least experienced of the Spurs’ core the scapegoat.

What does all of this mean for Kawhi Leonard heading into the ’13-14 season?

It means Leonard will be playing with a mammoth-sized chip on his shoulder, ready to dispel any thoughts of him as a “choke artist.”

At 6-7 with a 7-3 wingspan and monstrous hands, Leonard is already a terror on defense (the look of agony LeBron gave when he realized Leonard was re-entering the game during the Finals speaks volumes to the young man’s defensive prowess). Combine that with a burgeoning offensive skillset, a high basketball IQ, and a tremendous feel for the game and you have one of the emerging two-way players in the L.

Even better, Leonard is a total basketball junkie. Just look at what Gregg Popovich had to say about him during an interview with NBA.com:

“I think he’s going to be a star. And as time goes on, he’ll be the face of the Spurs I think. At both ends of the court, he is really a special player. And what makes me be so confident about him is that he wants it so badly. He wants to be a good player, I mean a great player. He comes early, he stays late, and he’s coachable, he’s just like a sponge. When you consider he’s only had one year of college and no training camp yet, you can see that he’s going to be something else.”

Considering the ornery coach isn’t one to BS, the rest of the NBA should be on notice and realize that Leonard is the truth.

Leonard is a total throwback player, from his style of play to his hair-do. He is the prototypical Spurs player—a low-key, team-oriented guy who quietly climbs up the ranks until he is suddenly taking over games and every other GM and coach in the League is left shaking their head wondering how they could have missed out on this kid.

While his lockdown defensive ability should have him on the radar for the All-Defensive team and Defensive Player of the Year lists, Leonard’s offensive output will depend on how many touches he gets a game. Last season, little to no offensive sets were drawn up for Leonard; nine times out of ten, he ran straight to the corner and either found himself open for a 3-pointer, reacting to his teammates and getting a sneaky bucket or crashing the offensive glass. With Duncan, Parker and Ginobili all back, his touches will likely be limited once again, though Pop surely has a few tricks up his sleeve for his future star. Don’t be surprised if Leonard finds himself in rhythm and quietly drops 20+ a few times a month.

If Leonard stays healthy (he played in only 58 games last season thanks to knee and quad injuries), expect a Paul George-esque leap into the NBA’s elite. Leonard’s ’13-14 campaign could include his first All-Star selection, a Most Improved Player award and a spot on the All-Defensive First-Team—seriously, the sky’s the limit.


Where should Kawhi Leonard rank in the SLAM Top 50?

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SLAMonline Top 50 Players 2013
RankPlayerTeamPositionPos. Rank
50Monta EllisMavsSG5
49Luol DengBullsSF10
48Ricky RubioTWolvesPG14
47Greg MonroePistonsPF12
46Kawhi LeonardSpursSF9

Rankings are based on expected contribution in ’13-14—to players’ team, the League and the game.