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The Rise of Kawhi Leonard: Role player to Superstar

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The Rise of Kawhi: Beginnings

Kawhi Clipper Road Jersey

This is the story of the rise of Kawhi Leonard. From overlooked high-school superstar to collegiate game-changer. 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.

Kawhi playing high-school ball for MLK
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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, Kawhi was still seen as an underrated player.


When the McDonalds All-American rosters 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.

Kawhi Leonard Gear

Most of these players grew up dreaming of becoming a big-time baller. For the few with the skillset, 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 the slight, Kawhi Leonard was already committed to play for San Diego State.

Kawhi Leonard recruiting card
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Kawhi the Positionless

Kawhi’s decision came early into his senior season at MLK. No major conference school showed a 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 am saying the so-called experts thought Kawhi Leonard might be a liability, on the defensive end of the court at the collegiate level.

Kawhi Leonard was ranked 48th in the nation coming out of high school. The 8th best small forward. A 4-star mid-major athlete. Big program coaches really didn’t know where to play him on the court.

Kawhi Leonard with the San Diego State Aztecs
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Kawhi Leonard San Diego State Jersey

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 Leonard started to garner national media attention. This attention wasn’t aimed at him being a top pick in the upcoming NBA draft, it was about him leading San Diego State to a 34-3 record.

Difference Maker
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What an explosive collegiate difference maker he was. No one felt he’d go on to make the same impact one day for an NBA team. It wasn’t even debated. There wasn’t even a whisper giving birth to 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 was crazy.

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.

Kawhi Leonard San Diego Aztecs
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Honestly I personally saw him as an undersized power forward. Kawhi Leonard had hops and he could get up with his athleticism over bigger opponents, which made him a beast on the boards at San Diego State.

March Madness

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.The skillset wasn’t present at the time. It was the work he put in that changed everything.

Kawhi Leonard NBA Draft night with commissioner David Stern
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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 drafted by Indiana, he was quickly traded to San Antonio.

Coach Popovich was probably hoping Leonard would become a Bruce Bowen type-of-a- defender. In my opinion, the Spurs franchise would have seen this draft trade as 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.

Kawhi Leonard at Spurs practice
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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. Usually meaning the scouts don’t think he’s fast or athletic enough, etc.

Magic Johnson & Larry Bird in college
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Another possibility could be the player is believed to slow in getting his shot off. Many scouts thought this about 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 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.

NBA Hats

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 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: the development and the work

 Kawhi Leonard didn’t fit into any of these categories. Nobody just missed in 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 it with a hand in his face.  He can create his shot almost at will.

2014 NBA Finals: The Rise of Kawhi

 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 that season. That was the season he was first rewarded for his defense, being named All-Defensive 2nd-team.

Kawhi Leonard injured
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Kawhi Leonard accomplishment’s 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. 

Every season, Kawhi Leonard became more and more of a threat from behind the three-point arc . After being awarded as a 2nd-team All-defense in 2014, he shut down the NBA’s best scorers with regularity for the next three seasons.

From 2015-2017, he garnered 1st-team All-defense each season. He also put an exclamation point as the unquestioned best defender in the game. Winning back-to-back Defensive player-of-the-year awards in 2015 and 2016.

Kawhi Leonard poses the O'Brien and Finals MVP trophy as a member of the Spurs
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Leading the league in steals in 2015 (2.3). Three all-star appearances (2016,2017,2019). If not for being out injured in 2018, Leonard would’ve been an all-star then too.

 Kawhi took a step towards greatness in 2016 & 2017, when he was honored as a 1st team All-NBA selection. He got hurt 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.

Kawhi Leonard resume boosts that he is the only perimeter defender to win back-to-back defensive player-of-the-year awards. He’s the only perimeter defender to win more than one Defensive Player-of-the-year awards period.

Kawhi Leonard Toronto Raptors
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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. In game 1 of the East Semis, Kawhi dropped a career playoff high 45 pts. A historic performance where 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, 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.

Kawhi Leonard holds up the Eastern Conference trophy
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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. 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 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?

Kawhi Leonard Los Angeles Clippers
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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. Before Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson got injured.

Kawhi Leonard 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, surpassed every single person’s ceiling of what he could be. Surpassed everyone’s wildest expectations. Everyone that is except his own.

Kawhi Leonard after winning 2019 NBA championship with Toronto Raptors
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