The Rise of Kawhi: Beginnings
This is the story of the rise of Kawhi. From overlooked high school superstar to collegiate gamechanger. NBA role player to Superstar. In 2009 Kawhi Leonard was a senior at MLK high school in Riverside, California. That season Kawhi averaged 22.6 points,13.1 boards, 3.9 assists, and 3.0 blocks, leading his team to a 30-3 record on his way to being named Mr.basketball for the state of California.
Leonard’s Road to San Diego State
Dispite leading his team to a national top 10 ranking and being named the best basketball player in one of the largest states in the country, when the McDonalds All American rosters, which are a reward to the nation’s top high school players were revealed, Kawhi Leonard’s name was nowhere to be found. Today there are multiple high school all star games, but in 2009 it was all about the McDonalds game. A night where future college and NBA stars are showcased on ESPN in primetime. For fans it’s an introduction to the future crop of talent.
I can only imagine what it means to the players. Most growing up dreaming of being a big time baller. For those few with the will, and the skill, driven to work day in and day out to fulfill their dreams. This is their first time in the national spotlight. How could a player of the year in the state of California be left out? Completely Uninvited to the event! This isn’t really a question I’m asking today, it’s a question someone on the selection committee picking the talent should have asked back then! Despite Kawhi’s slight he was already committed to play for San Diego State.
Kawhi the Positionless
Kawhi’s decision came early into his senior season at MLK. No major conference school showed a serious interest. It was said he was a tweener. A tweener is a player in between positions. To small for the power forward and reports stated they feared he would have trouble defensively guarding the small forward in the college game. Yes I am saying so called experts thought Kawhi Leonard might be a liability on the defensive end of the court at the college level! As you can see above, he was ranked 48th in the nation, and 8th at his position. A 4 star mid major athlete. Big program coaches really didn’t know where to play him on the court.
The Rise Of Kawhi: NCAA Edition
At the end of his first collegiate season Kawhi led the Mountain West in rebounding. He was awarded MWC freshman of the year, first team All-MWC, and MWC 2010 conference tournament MVP. When his sophomore season began to play out, Kawhi started to garner national media attention. This attention wasn’t aimed at him being a top pick in the upcoming NBA draft, rather it was about him leading San Diego State to a 34-3 record.
What a explosive collegiate difference maker he was! No one however felt he’d go on to make the same impact one day for any NBA team. It wasn’t even debated. Their wasn’t even a whisper or the idea of the thought. The thought that one day he’d make an impact in the NBA that would make his college career look average in comparison! He averaged 15.7 points, 10.4 rebounds,and 1.4 steals while leading the Aztecs to the sweet 16. Being named as a second team All-American. He shot 44.4% from the field and 29.1% from three in college.
Honestly I personally saw him as an undersized power forward. Kawhi could get up with his athleticism over bigger opponents which made him a beast on the boards. He was a serious game changer for San Diego State as the 2011 season began its approach into March Madness. He was making the nation take notice of the Aztecs almost singlehandedly. Though it never even crossed my mind that this beast in the post would become what he became.
The NBA Draft
After foregoing his final two collegiate season’s to enter the 2011 NBA Draft, Kawhi heard his name called by the commissioner as the 15th pick of the first round. Originally drafted by Indiana, he was quickly traded to San Antonio. Coach Pop was probably hoping he could become a Bruce Bowen type of a lock down defender. In my opinion the Spurs franchise would have seen that draft night trade a success if Leonard was strictly a great defender. As a rookie, the man who would become known as The Claw would finish 4th in rookie of the year voting and make the 2012 NBA All Rookie first team.
The examples of Magic and Bird
Sometimes scouts and the like misjudge a player’s talent. Whether it’s because they think the talent that their competing against is inferior or they wouldn’t impact a game in the NBA the same way as they had in college. Another possibility could be the player is believed to slow in getting his shot off. This was alot of scouts fear of larry Bird when he entered the league. It only took a game or two for those scouting reports to look silly at best. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were drafted 6th and 1st overall respectively in consecutive drafts. There were experts at the time who thought both picks were not good picks. Larry Bird especially, he was to slow and wouldn’t even be able to get his shot off.
Red Auerbach was one of the only ones to scoff at this notion and drafted Bird after his junior season. Holding his rights for a full year before he finished his college career at Indiana State. This obviously isn’t allowed in todays draft structure, but back in 1978 it was. Bird played his enire Senior season as property of the Boston Celtics. At the time many thought the genius that was the maestro of designing the 1960s Celtics teams had lost his touch. Considering Auerbach’s 6th overall pick of Bird reckless. Both dominated from day one. Auerbach also made other moves on drafting McHale and Ainge. While acquiring Parish and Archibald. So hat do the experts really know? That’s another story though.
Early NBA Career: the development and the work
I’m actually trying to make a point and that is Kawhi didn’t fit into any of these categories. Within his first three to four seasons, his handle improved considerably. Which then allowed him to take defenders off the dribble, with his quickness and athleticism. While the whole time working on his jump shot. Finally resulting in him being a multifaceted offensive weapon. A weapon that in 2019 still seems to be evolving. Play him tight, he’ll put the ball on the floor. Can’t give him room anymore. He’ll knock down that jumper with a hand in his face, let alone in space. He can create his shot almost at will.
2014 NBA Finals: The Rise of Kawhi
Let’s go back for a minute. The beginning of the rise of Kawhi really became noticeable during the 2014 NBA Finals. When those finals ended, Kawhi was named Finals MVP despite only averaging 12.8 points, 6.2 boards, and 1.7 steals during the season. However that was the season he was first rewarded for his defense. Being named All-Defensive 2nd team.
Kawhi’s accomplishments from 2014-2017
Other than the season he was injured his ppg has gone up every single year. While maintaining about 50% shooting from the field. Also every year becoming more and more of a threat from behind the three point line. After making 2nd team All-defense in 2014, he shut down the NBA’S best scorers with such regularity that in the three seasons between 2015-2017, he garnered 1st team All-Defense each season. He also put an exclamation point as thee unquestioned best defender in the game with back to back Defensive player of the year awards in 2015 and 2016.
Leading the league in steals in 2015 (2.3). Three all star appearances (2016,2017,2019). It’s safe to say in my opinion if not for being injured in 2018, he would’ve been an all star then too. Let’s not forget when he got hurt in the playoff game against Golden State. What he single handedly was doing against one of the NBA’S greatest teams of all time. 2016 and 2017 saw the rise of Kawhi take another step into greatness, as Leonard was honored to the 1st team All-NBA. He can also add to his resume that he is the only perimeter defender to win back to back defensive player of the year awards. The only perimeter defender to win more than one Defensive Player of the year award period.
If all this isn’t enough, in his first year as a Toronto Raptor, he led the club to the second best record in the Eastern Conference. Throw in a career high 26.6 ppg. Then in game 1 of the East Semis dropped a career playoff high 45 pts. A historic performance, in which he was unstoppable. Every single way you can score the ball, he did it. Off the dribble, threes, posted up, circus shots. Nothing Philadelphia could do, threatened to stop it. Nothing, None of it. He was ridiculously unguardable! Basketball reference predicts his chances of someday becoming a hall of Famer at 15.8%. Maybe they want to rethink those odds and precentages!
As I update my story. It is now 2 months later. The 2019 NBA playoffs are now part of history. Everyone knows that in game 7 against Philadelphia, Kawhi hit a buzzer beater to advance Toronto to the Eastern Conference Finals. Ultimately leading to a showdown with Golden State for the NBA Championship title. Coming full circle against the same team he was showcasing his skills against in game 1 of the 2017 West Finals. The game he dominated one of the best squads in league history. Only to suffer the injury that ultimately landed him in Toronto.
As the 2019 Finals ended, Kawhi walked off with his second NBA Championship and second Finals MVP award. I say with confidence that I believe if Leonard retired tomorrow, he’s a lock for the hall of fame. That in itself as I write it feels like an understatement. This is the rise of Kawhi. As basketball fans bare witness to the heights he has risen. What’s next? What’s possible after what has already been accomplished?
Going back to Cali
Kawhi Leonard will now head back to where his basketball career started. California. As a free agent Leonard signed to play with the L.A Clippers. Joining Leonard will be fellow perennial All Star Paul George. Both will make their Los Angeles debuts for a team that gave the Golden State Warriors all they could handle in the 1st round of last year’s playoffs. This his was before Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson got injured.
So now Kawhi heads back to L.A to call the Staples Center home. After all he’s accomplished can it someday be possible that he could be the first non Laker NBA player with a statue outside Staples? Who knows. I wouldn’t put it past him though. The man drafted to shutdown NBA perimeter players for Coach Popovich à la Bruce Bowen. The superstar that surpassed every single person’s ceiling of what he could be. Surpassed everyone’s wildest expectations. Everyone that is except his own.