As San Diego State prepares for its match-up with BYU, we’ll bring you up to date on SoCal’s brightest hoops star Kawhi Leonard. SDSU will need a big night from this sophomore forward for the Aztecs to make tonight their national coming out party. –Ed.

Originally published in SLAM 145

by Jordan Conn

This was going to be a mistake. That’s what they all said.

When Kawhi Leonard, a top-50 recruit coming out of Southern California in ’09, decided to head to San Diego State instead of one of the West Coast’s powerhouse programs, he heard plenty of criticism. Not a strong enough program. Not a big enough spotlight. Not a place where Leonard could thrive, could win.

“Yeah, a lot of people questioned the decision, for sure,” says Kawhi (pronounced Kuh-WHY), moments after his Aztecs beat defending Pac-10 champion Cal on Cal’s home floor. “But I knew I was right.”

Now, he’s proving it.

San Diego State began the year with the first 12-0 start in program history, and, at the time of this writing, the Aztecs were ranked 7th in the AP Top 25. Leonard has driven his team’s success, averaging 16 points, 10 boards and a couple of steals per game. A 6-7 sophomore wing known for his defense both on the perimeter and in the paint—and a knack for outrebounding bigger opponents—Leonard expanded his offensive skill set this offseason.

“I knew I had to work on becoming an outside player,” he explains. “Guys were pushing to shoot off the dribble and to shoot threes, so I had to be working on that every day.”

So on any given day this summer, Leonard could be found in a SoCal gym, polishing his jumper, working to take his game—and his team—to the next level.

“Kawhi’s just a gym rat,” Aztecs coach Steve Fisher says. “He’s the guy you have to chase out of the gym.”

He put in the time, and now Leonard is reaping the rewards. His scoring average has jumped by nearly four points, and he’s hitting 37 percent of his threes, after making 21 percent last season. So for now, the Aztecs are rolling, and Leonard’s stock is rising.

And nobody can question that.