Estimated reading time: 14 minutes
Kawhi Leonard’s stats have been amongst the NBA’s best players in the last few years. He’s won two NBA championships and two NBA Finals MVP awards. Bruce Bowen was supposed to be his ceiling. Here is how this role player became a franchise superstar.
The Rise of Kawhi: Beginnings
This is the rise of Kawhi Leonard from his stats to his importance on the basketball court, from overlooked high-school superstar to collegiate game-changer. NBA role player to franchise Superstar.
In 2009, “The Klaw” was in his senior at Martin Luther King High School in Riverside, California. Kawhi Leonard’s stats read that he averaged 22.6 points-per-game,13.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists, and 3.0 blocks. Leading MLK to a 30-3 record and being named Mr. Basketball for the state of California.
Road to San Diego State
Kawhi led his high school team to a national top 10 ranking and was named the best basketball player in one of the largest states in the country.
Kawhi Leonard wasn’t getting the accolades he deserved. He was seen as a tweener and this is why he wasn’t being recruited by the elite NCAA college basketball programs.
The Car Wash
He lost his father at a young age very in very violent fashion. It didn’t stop the young man from trying to live his dream of being a professional athlete though.
Kawhi Leonard wasn’t rewarded with a spot in the 2009 McDonald’s All-American game.
There are multiple high-school all-star games now, but back in 2009 it was all about the McDonalds game.
This is where future NCAA and NBA stars are showcased in primetime on ESPN. For most fans it’s an introduction to the future crop of talent.
Most of these players grew up dreaming of becoming big-time ballers. For the few with the skillset, driven to work day-in andnout to fulfill their dreams, this is their first time in the national spotlight.
How can the 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 in 2009. Despite the slight, Kawhi Leonard was committed to play at San Diego State University.
Kawhi the Positionless
Kawhi’s decision came early into his senior season at MLK to attend San Diego State University. No major conference school showed any serious interest in him. He was a tweener. A tweener is a player in between positions size-wise.
Experts thought Kawhi Leonard would have trouble defensively guarding the perimeter in the college game. Yes, I’m saying the so-called experts thought Kawhi might be a liability on defense at the collegiate level.
He was the 8th best small forward in his graduating class and the 48th overall best player. Kawhi wasn’t given special accolades and he didn’t receive the fanfare that other future NBA players did either.
He would have to go out and take them. Big program coaches really didn’t know where to play him on the court. Could Kawhi Leonard’s stats even be half of what they were at Martin Luther King High School?
Kawhi Leonard NCAA accolades
At the end of his first collegiate season, Kawhi led the Mountain West Conference in rebounding and was the MWC Freshman-of-the-Year. a First-Team All-MWC, and MWC 2010 conference tournament MVP. Kawhi Leonard was putting up stats and beginning to garner some accolades on the collegiate level.
When his sophomore season began in 2011, Kawhi started to garner national media attention for being a game changing player and leading San Diego State University to a 34-3 record.
What an explosive collegiate difference maker Kawhi was. No one thought he’d make the same impact in the NBA one day . There was no debate. Not even a whisper giving birth to the idea .
Kawhi Leonard’s stats and impact on the NBA would make his college career look average in comparison, this would have been unfathomable five years prior to its actuality.
He averaged 15.7 points-per-game, 10.4 rebounds, and 1.4 steals, leading the Aztecs to the sweet 16 in 2011 and being named a Second-Team All-American in the process. He shot 44.4% from the field and 29.1% from three in college.
Honestly, I saw him as an undersized power forward. Kawhi Leonard stats read a double-double and his hops were ridiculous. He could jump with his athleticism over bigger opponents, which made him a problem on the boards.
He was a serious game-changer for the Aztecs as the 2011 season progressed into March Madness. He was making the nation take notice of the Aztecs almost singlehandedly.
It never even crossed my mind that Kawhi Leonard would become what he became though. The skillset wasn’t present at the time.
It was the work he put in that went and changed everything.
The NBA Draft
Kawhi Leonard decided to forego his final two seasons at San Diego State to enter the 2011 NBA Draft. He was drafted as the 15th pick of the first round. Originally he was drafted by the Indiana Pacers and then quickly traded to San Antonio.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was probably hoping Leonard would become a Bruce Bowen type-of-defender. In my opinion, the Spurs franchise would have seen this draft night trade as a success if Leonard was strictly a great defender.
As a rookie, the man who would become known as “The Klaw” would finish 4th in Rookie-of- the-Year voting and make the 2012 NBA All-Rookie first-team. This would be the first of many times Kawhi Leonard would be honored with awards by the NBA.
The examples of Magic and Bird
Sometimes scouts misjudge a player’s talent. Whether it’s because they think the talent that they’re competing against is inferior or they don’t think the players skills will translate to the NBA. This usually means the scouts don’t think that he’s fast or athletic enough to play in the NBA.
Another possibility could be the player is believed to be slow in getting his shot off. Many scouts thought this about Larry Bird when he entered the league. It only took about 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 ones. Larry Bird especially, he was too slow and wouldn’t be able to get his shot off. Magic Johnson wasn’t athletic or fast enough to play point guard, he couldn’t shoot and the way he played the game wouldn’t translate to the NBA. HA-HA-HAAAAAAA.
Red Auerbach was one of the only evaluators 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 University. This obviously isn’t allowed in todays draft structure, but back in 1978 it was. Bird played his entire Senior season as property of the Boston Celtics.
At the time, many thought the genius that was the maestro of designing the 1960’s Celtics teams had lost his touch. Concluding that Auerbach using the 6th overall pick on Bird was reckless. Both players dominated from day one. Auerbach also made other moves by drafting McHale and Ainge. Then acquiring Parish and Archibald. What do the experts really know anyway?
Early NBA Career
Kawhi Leonard didn’t fit into any of these categories. Nobody just missed on their analysis of him. Within his first 3-4 seasons, Kawhi’s handle improved considerably, which then allowed him to take defenders off the dribble with his quickness and athleticism. The whole time working on his jump shot.
This Resulted in him becoming a multi-faceted 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 the jumper. Kawhi doesn’t even need space anymore, he’ll hit all day with a hand in his face. He can create his shot almost at will.
Kawhi Leonard Accolades: 2014 NBA Finals
The beginning of the rise of Kawhi really became noticeable during the 2014 NBA Finals. When they ended, Kawhi Leonard’s stats and intangibles got him named NBA Finals MVP. It wasn’t Tim Duncan or Tony Parker winning the award.
Kawhi averaged 12.8 points, 6.2 boards, and 1.7 steals during the 2014 regular season but played his best in the rematch of the 2013 NBA Finals against the Miami Heat. That was the season he was first rewarded for his defense too, being named All-Defensive 2nd-team.
Kawhi Leonard Stats: 2014-2017
Other than the season he was injured his PPG has gone up every single season, while maintaining about 50% shooting from the field.
Every season he became more-and-more of a threat from behind the three-point arc too. After being rewarded as a 2nd-team All-defense in 2014, he shut down the NBA’s best scorers with regularity for his San Antonio Spurs team over the next three seasons.
He was named a 1st-team All-defense each season from 2015-17. He put an exclamation point after best defender in the game. Winning back-to-back Defensive player-of-the-year awards in 2015 and 2016. Kawhi Leonard’s stats and accolades were starting to become a list of honors saved for the historically revered NBA superstars.
Leading the league in steals in 2015 (2.3) and making three all-star appearances (2016,2017,2019). If not for being injured in 2018, Leonard would’ve played in that NBA All-Star Game too.
Kawhi took a step towards greatness in 2016 & 2017, when he was honored as a 1st-team All-NBA selection. He got injured in a playoff game against Golden State in 2017. What he singlehandedly was doing in that game against one of the NBA’s greatest teams of all-time was remarkable.
Some of Kawhi Leonard’s accolades have only been accomplished by him like when he became the only perimeter defender to win back-to-back defensive player-of-the-year awards other than Sidney Moncrief.
He has been named to three NBA All-Defensive first teams and six NBA All-Defensive teams overall.
If all this isn’t enough, in his first year with the Toronto Raptors, he led the club to the second best record in the Eastern Conference with a career high 26.6 ppg. In game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semi-finals, he scored a career high 45 points. Kawhi Leonard stats have recorded his career high of 45 points has happened three different times. In the regular season and in the playoffs.
A historic performance where he was unstoppable. Every single way you can score the ball, he did it. Off the dribble, three pointers, posting up, circus shots, nothing Philadelphia did threatened to stop it. Nothing, 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 percentages.
Two Months Later
The 2019 NBA playoffs are now NBA 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 Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors for the NBA Championship.
Coming full circle against the same team he was showcasing his skills against in game 1 of the 2017 West Finals. That 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 NBA Finals MVP award. I say with confidence that I believe if Kawhi Leonard retired tomorrow, with his stats and accolades, he is a lock for the Naismith Memorial Hall-of-Fame. He’s playing now for legendary status, to be an all-time great.
That in itself as I write it feels like an understatement. This is the rise of Kawhi Leonard. As basketball fans bare witness to the heights he has risen, what’s next?
He hasn’t won an NBA MVP but he has twice won the Finals MVP. Kawhi Leonard’s stats have risen to superstar status as has his legacy.
Regular season MVP’s are only a major factor in the legacy of the players without championships and multiple NBA Finals MVP awards.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is a great player but doesn’t enjoy Kawhi Leonard’s status because of his lack of postseason success to date. Winning a championship for the Clippers would lift Leonard to the all-time great legends to ever play basketball.
Going back to Cali
Kawhi Leonard will now head back to where his basketball career began in California. As a free-agent Leonard signed to play with the L.A Clippers. Joining Leonard will be fellow perennial NBA 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.
Kawhi Leonard heads home to L.A to call the Staples Center home. If Leonard wins championships with the Los Angeles Clippers would he be the first non-Lakers player with a statue outside Staples?
LeBron James tried to recruit Kawhi to play with him and Anthony Davis as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers but Leonard decided to join the Clippers instead. Anthony Davis and LeBron James are Kawhi Leonard’s rivals. Especially LeBron, who he has faced in two previous NBA Finals, with each superstar winning once.
A smart decision because joining the Lakers and winning rings wouldn’t have been as meaningful to his legacy. It would’ve been a super team. If he could Win the Clippers their first franchise championship, it would mean much more to the NBA’s history.
It would be his team. Any championships, his championships. Anyone with any integrity would rather try and fail before joining a LeBron James super team and only win because they were too talented to fail like Kevin Durant did with the Warriors.
The man drafted to shutdown NBA perimeter players for Coach Popovich à la Bruce Bowen, surpassed every single person’s ceiling of what he could be. Surpassed everyone’s wildest expectations. Everyone that is except his own.