The Rise of Kawhi: Beginnings
This is the story of Kawhi Leonard’s accolades, from overlooked high-school superstar to collegiate game-changer. NBA role player to NBA Superstar.
In 2009, Kawhi Leonard was a senior at MLK high school in Riverside, California. That season he 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, Kawhi Leonard wasn’t getting the accolades he deserved and 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.
Most of these players grew up dreaming of becoming big-time ballers. 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 at all. 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 at San Diego State.
Kawhi the Positionless
Kawhi’s decision came early into his senior season at MLK. 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 am saying the so-called experts thought Kawhi Leonard might be a liability on defense at the collegiate level.
He was ranked 48th in the nation coming out of high school. The 8th best small forward. A 4-star mid-major athlete, Kawhi Leonard wasn’t given the accolades that some top prospects receive. Ke would have to go out and take them. Big program coaches really didn’t know where to play him on the court.
Kawhi Leonard’s accolades: 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. Kawhi Leonard was beginning to garner some accolades, at least on the collegiate level.
When his sophomore season began to play out, Kawhi Leonard started to garner national media attention too. 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.
What an explosive collegiate difference maker he was. No one felt he’d go on to make the same impact in the NBA someday . It wasn’t even debated. There wasn’t even a whisper giving birth to the idea of the thought.
The thought that one day Kawhi Leonard would receive the accolades and 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 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.
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 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 drafted by Indiana, he was quickly traded to San Antonio.
Coach Popovich was probably hoping Leonard would become a Bruce Bowen type-of-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. This would be the first of many Kawhi Leonard accolades and honors awarded to him in 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.
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
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.
Kawhi Leonard Accolades: 2014 NBA Finals
The beginning of the rise of Kawhi really became noticeable during the 2014 NBA Finals. When the NBA finals ended, Kawhi was named NBA Finals MVP, it wasn’t Tim Duncan or Tony Parker.
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, being named All-Defensive 2nd-team.
Kawhi Leonard Accolades 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 his Spurs team over the next three seasons.
From 2015-2017, he was awarded as a 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’s accolades and awards were becoming a list of honors.
Leading the league in steals in 2015 (2.3). Three all-star appearances (2016,2017,2019). If not for being 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.
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. He’s the only perimeter defender to win more than one Defensive Player-of-the-year awards period.
If all this isn’t enough, in his first year with thw 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, Kawhi dropped a playoff career high of 45 pts.
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 for Kawhi Leonard’s NBA career.
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 accolades, is a lock for the hall-of-fame. He’s playing now for legend 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? What’s possible after what has already been accomplished? He has never finished first in NBA MVP voting but he has twice in the Finals MVP voting. That would be a feather in his cap but not a major factor on 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. A championship for the Clippers would lift Leonard to the all-time great level.ss
Going back to Cali
Kawhi Leonard will now head back to where his basketball career began, 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. That was 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-Lakers NBA player with a statue outside Staples? Who knows. I wouldn’t put it past him though. It would be Kawhi Leonard adding to his growing list of accolades.
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.