It was a relatively unexceptional 2010 summer night at San Diego State University, and on one side of Peterson Gym, NBA journeyman Trevor Ariza was getting up shots with some friends. On the other side was Kawhi Leonard, then a sophomore-to-be at SDSU, who was doing the same while slyly studying the pro, trying to pick up on whatever he could.
Ariza would practice at SDSU from time to time during the offseason—he was close with one of the basketball team’s assistant coaches—and on this night, Leonard noticed something specific about Ariza’s workout. It was a little different from his own, in which one of his boys—usually Jeremy Castleberry, Kawhi’s best friend since he was about 16—would feed him the ball as he tossed up hundreds of jumpshots, before the pair would switch positions, when the SDSU star would reciprocate. What Leonard realized was simple: This process didn’t make any sense.
“Kawhi was just like, ‘Man, you don’t see Trev’s boys trying to get shots up,’” Castleberry says. “He was like, ‘If you don’t shoot, I can get to the League in half the time. I could be in the NBA by next year if we cut y’all drills off.’”
“I haven’t shot since. That was the last day.”
Castleberry cracks up when he says this—he and the reigning Defensive Player of the Year are close as can be, so there’s certainly no love lost—but he isn’t really joking, and it all hints at a theme that commonly makes itself clear when analyzing his buddy’s life: Kawhi Leonard is really, really serious about this basketball shit.
That’s obviously the case these days, as he locks opponents down and puts up 20 points per game as the two-way star of the San Antonio Spurs. (Good luck evolving from sub-par college basketball shooter to the possessor of one of the top three-point percentages in the entire NBA while simply fucking around.) But it’s also more or less always been true, ever since he was a kid growing up in Moreno Valley, a city in the greater Los Angeles area. Kawhi played football, too—an old home video shows his sister referring to him as “The next NFL-NBA player,” according to Kim Robertson, Kawhi’s mom—but he quit after freshman year of high school to fully focus on basketball.
Castleberry and Leonard played on the same AAU team (and later the same high school team, when Kawhi transferred to Martin Luther King HS for his junior and senior years), and as teenagers they’d spend summer weeks and school-year weekends training with their coach Marvin Lea during the day and crashing at his apartment at night. (Lea, who had then just started the Team eLEAte program, was playing at Pepperdine University in L.A. at the time.) Their entire lives revolved around hoops—the duo would go to the gym two or three times a day, then watch NBA TV or Michael Jordan’s legendary Come Fly With Me highlight reel over and over. “[One time] we watched NBA TV on repeat for so long that we knew everything that was coming up,” says Castleberry, who now works for the Spurs as a video intern.
“It’d be late at night and I’d be trying to sleep and hear a whole bunch of noise and my girl would be like, what’s going on?” remembers Lea. “They’d be trying to play fake one-on-one on the doorstep, on the stairway. Just non-stop. Basketball is all they cared about.”
Kawhi’s father Mark Leonard was tragically murdered at the Compton car wash he owned in 2008, and perhaps to take his mind off what happened, or perhaps simply to fill time that could be otherwise spent getting into trouble, Kawhi doubled down on the sport. It was Mark who had instilled a strong work ethic in his son, forcing Kawhi to start over if he lazily missed a spot while washing a car, and that work ethic would prove itself mighty useful in the world of basketball. “Everybody loves to play basketball, but [Kawhi] loved the work part more than everybody else,” Lea says.
He sprouted to 6-7, and without the ballhandling ability of a guard or the post game of a big, he was widely seen as a tweener without a true position. DJ Gay, who would become his teammate at San Diego State, went on a recruiting visit at the same time as Kawhi and played 2-on-2 with some others during their time spent on campus. “I didn’t really understand what Kawhi had to offer,” Gay says. “He wasn’t the best shooter, wasn’t the best ballhandler.”
Then the season rolled around, and the team practiced for real. “Once I saw him the first day of practice, I was excited,” Gay continues. “He was able to defend any position. On the offensive end, he had a certain strength about him, where it wasn’t so much that he would make a certain move, it was that he would just body you to the basket. If he missed the shot, eight out of 10 times he would get the ball back and go right back up with it. I hadn’t seen anything like that before.”
Two years at SDSU resulted in a first-round NCAA Tournament loss and a Sweet 16 loss, after which Kawhi, who averaged 14.1 ppg and 10.2 rpg in college, wisely bolted for the NBA. He had hoped to become a top-10 pick, but slipped to 15, where the Indiana Pacers picked him up and quickly dished him to San Antonio in exchange for guard George Hill. “When that trade happened on Draft day minutes after Indiana picked him, I think there was a little more excitement at the table [in the Draft room],” says Dennis Robertson, Kawhi’s uncle, who manages all of his nephew’s off-the-court affairs. “Just because of the make-up [of the Spurs], and his approach, you couldn’t ask for a better fit.”
Accurate. Under Coach Pop’s Belichickian say-little, work-hard direction and Tim Duncan’s ever-unemotional leadership, Kawhi’s naturally quiet demeanor and ability to tune out the white noise that surrounds the NBA has made him beloved in San Antonio. He’s had to earn his stripes—he played 24 minutes a game as a rookie, averaging 7.9 points per, but has gotten better on both ends every season since. “He showed lots of flashes early on, whether it was going up and dunking on somebody or defensively, how good he was at making incredible steals and locking people down,” says Cory Joseph, the Raptors guard who spent his first few NBA years with Leonard in San Antonio. “I had no doubts in my mind that he was gonna be a superstar.”
Kawhi’s most important stretch to date is, at this point, well known: The 2014 NBA Finals, of which he’d eventually take home MVP. That series started slow, with him scoring just 9 points in both of the first two games, which the Spurs and Heat split. Between Games 2 and 3,
Tish Christian, Kawhi’s aunt, sent him a text, an attempt at making him feel better.
“Don’t worry, Auntie,” he responded. “We got this.”
He was right.
Kawhi scored 29, 20 and 22 points in the following three games, blanketing LeBron James and helping his Spurs dominate the remainder of the series.
The following season, 2014-15, came the big offensive leap—from 12.8 ppg to 16.5, along with the aforementioned DPOY award, establishing himself as the best perimeter defender in the League. And this season we’ve seen more progress, with his scoring up to 20.2 ppg and his three-point shooting percentage up to a nearly League-leading (!!!) 48 percent. That last stat can be credited to hours upon hours spent honing and re-honing his jumper with Spurs assistant Chip Engelland, who declined to speak with us for this story.
With the Spurs choosing to remain silent and Kawhi himself not exactly the most talkative source (more on that in a bit), we hit up Randy Shelton, the SDSU men’s basketball strength and conditioning coach, to learn more about the improvement Kawhi has made.
Shelton and Kawhi put work in every summer in San Diego (and they’ve done so during past All-Star breaks, though those will likely never again be free weekends for KL), not necessarily refining specific basketball skills so much as general athleticism and explosiveness.
“The one thing that he always had genetically was a really solid lower half,” Shelton says. “He has a football background—so when I got him, he was basically a diamond in the rough in the weight room, as someone who has really good shoulder and hip mobility.”
That last part is your major key. Apologies if this recalls a certain Happy Gilmore character, but it really is all in the hips. “With Kawhi, the huge emphasis is on hip strength and hip mobility, and I think that’s kind of a new thing that people are talking about, but that’s been my thing since Day One,” Shelton adds.
“If we can make the hips as mobile as possible, that’s going to take a lot of force and impact off the knees. With basketball players, it’s very common to see that they’re quad-dominant and not really maximizing their glutes and hamstrings and hips efficiently. We still spend a good 35 percent of our time working on transitional movements—him sliding, him being able to go from sideways to backwards, making sure that his angle between his feet is proper, that his upper body is in the same position. When I’m with him, I say I want you to be like the best free safety that’s on the field, so I have him doing a lot of defensive back stuff. We spend a tremendous amount of time on footwork. Bottom line, my job is to make him the greatest athlete he can be.”
Job well done, bruh. As of press time, Kawhi’s Spurs are the owners of a 49-9 record, second only to the magical Golden State Warriors. And if Stephen Curry’s talents were to suddenly vanish in a Monstars-like incident, Kawhi Leonard, with his crazy-high three-point percentage, 20+ ppg and smothering perimeter D, would be in the thick of the conversation for 2015-16 NBA MVP. Or the front of it.
In Toronto during mid-February’s All-Star Weekend, we sat down with our basketball-obsessed cover subject at the shoot for the images you see in this story. We rapped a little about SDSU, a little about his relationship with Jordan Brand and the pretty cool fact that he personally designed the hand-like KL logo JB has blessed him with, and then we talked hoops. The fifth-year swingman didn’t have too much to say—shocking news from a guy who isn’t on Instagram or Twitter and turned down other mags for covers this month, we know—which explains why you haven’t heard any of his voice in this story just yet. But this is a story about Kawhi Leonard, and Kawhi Leonard did speak with us—about what drives him, about coming into his own, about what the future holds. So we’ll let him take this thing home:
“I think I spend more time [in the gym] than an average NBA player. I do spend a lot of time just trying to get to the elite level, to a level that I think I can play at. My motivation is just trying to be a great, a top-50 player of all time—or even top-10. Just trying to reach that plateau. My family gives me a lot of strength and support, and that keeps me going. As long as I’m having fun out there on the floor and I’m not bored, I’ll keep getting better. I’m still having fun.
“I used to show a lot more emotion when I was playing at San Diego State, but just getting [to San Antonio] and learning the culture and learning how they do business, it just grew on me.
“Coming in, Tony Parker, Manu, Tim and them were still—well, Tony’s still great and in his prime—but Manu and Tim were, like, the main focus, and being a rookie, being under Coach Pop, he’s not gonna let you just showcase your talents and give you the ball and just tell you to go out there. With the Spurs those first three years or so, I was very limited with what I could do on the floor. I wasn’t able to showcase my talent.
“I still think there’s a lot that you haven’t yet seen that I can do.”
Adam Figman is the Editor-in-Chief at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @afigman.
Portraits Atiba Jefferson