Of all of the superstars in the NBA today, Kawhi Leonard is probably the one that people would’ve never predicted. As a young high schooler from Martin Luther King High School in Compton, California, Kawhi had a chance to go to a number of big basketball schools. Instead of going to a big name school, which was the aspiration of some of his teammates, he played two years at San Diego State, a mid-major in the Mountain West Conference.
After averaging 14 points, 10 rebounds, and 2 assists per game in college, Kawhi was selected with the 15th pick in the 2011 NBA Draft by the Indiana Pacers, but was traded to the Spurs soon after. Despite being a high draft pick, there were many questions about Leonard’s game. Although Leonard was a superb defensive player, scouts predicted he would have trouble scoring at the NBA level partly due to his poor shooting at San Diego State.
Fast forward six years and Kawhi Leonard has exceeded all expectations and silenced all of his critics. Just 25, Kawhi has the potential to be an all-time great. In just his sixth season in the league, he is already a two time Defensive Player of the Year, Finals MVP, and MVP runner up. In the entire history of the NBA, there have only been two 2x Defensive Player of the Year winners and Finals MVP. Kawhi and Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon. That is exclusive and esteemed company.
Kawhi has always been a terror defensively, and he’s been making major strides offensively. This year, Leonard is averaging 25.5 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 3.2 assists. His point total is a career high, as are his assist numbers. Every year Kawhi has been in the league, he has increased his points per game. The main thing that makes Kawhi such an elite scorer happened to be one of his biggest flaws coming into the league: his shooting. After shooting the ball poorly in college, Kawhi has worked at and greatly improved that aspect of his game. Last year, Kawhi shot 50 percent from the field, 44 percent from three, and 87 percent from the free throw line. This year, Kawhi is shooting 49/41/90. He was dangerously close to joining the exclusive 50/40/90 club last year and has a chance to do it this year. There have been only seven players to ever reach this mark including all time great shooters like Stephen Curry, Steve Nash, and Larry Bird. After struggling early in his career, Leonard now is one of the best shooters in the league and his whole game has benefited from it. Defenders respect his ability to shoot the long ball which gives him more lanes to drive to the basket or dish it out to his teammates. This has made him a better overall offensive player.
Not only has Kawhi established himself as one of the best volume scorers, he is among the most efficient scorers in the league. His .626 True Shooting Percentage currently ranks 17th in the league and 7th in the league among players who play 30 or more minutes per game. This combined with his great shooting percentages show that that Kawhi takes good high percentage shots. Combine that efficiency with his high volume and you get an elite scorer.
Kawhi has always had an immense amount of talent. Now, he has refined and smoothed out the parts of the game he struggled with early in his career. One thing that never changes in Kawhi no matter what is his legendary work ethic. This trait was instilled in him by his late father, Mark. Kawhi is an incredibly hard worker, something that Spurs coach, Gregg Popovich, who says that Leonard is always the first one to come to practice and the last one to leave, can attest to. This desire to get better has not only drastically improved Kawhi’s game but it has also made him a favorite of Coach Pop’s. His incredibly humble personality and robotic demeanor have made him a seamless fit with the Spurs and a fan favorite of not only Spurs fans but basketball fans in general.
After starting his career out as more of a role player, Kawhi Leonard has taken the reigns of the Spurs franchise and has become arguably a top 5 player in the NBA. His incredible talent combined with his relentless desire to improve his game has launched him into the upper eschelon of the league and turned him into a bona fide superstar.