Kawhi Leonard: From Tragedy to Stardom

Jacob Eisenberg profiles Kawhi Leonard and his rise from tragedy…

During basketball seasons in Riverside, his athletic frame and tireless motor wreaked havoc on both ends of the floor. He embraced contact as he attacked the rim and crashed the boards with reckless abandon.

Off the court, over his summers in Compton, he was relaxed. At his father’s carwash, he would happily scrub sedans in the sun for hours as he apprenticed in the family business. For the soft-spoken teenager, playing basketball was vocation — washing cars was vacation.

Then, on January 18th, 2008, it all changed. The 16-year-old kid with the freakish wingspan and high leaping ability got a tragic phone call.

His father had been murdered in broad daylight after a confrontation at the carwash.

Kawhi Leonard, not only lost his biggest fan and role model — he lost his best friend whom he talked on the phone with every single night. The carwash, filled with fond childhood memories, was now filled with emotional scars.

At this point in Leonard’s life, he was merely a good basketball player with a lot of unrefined skill.

However, in the midst of tragedy, Leonard turned to basketball as his distraction and mission. With motivation to make his father proud, Leonard put in extended hours at the gym, refined his shooting touch, and lifted weights. He supplemented his athletic dominance with physical dominance and eventually went on to San Diego State University, where he was voted to the second team of Sporting News’ All Americans by his sophomore year.

Then, at barely twenty years old, Leonard was selected by the Indiana Pacers in the first round of the 2011 Draft and was subsequently traded to San Antonio on the same night.

Today, just five years after tragedy struck, Leonard is not only the best defender on arguably the best team in the NBA: he is the consensus future face of the San Antonio Spurs and is considered by many to be only a few years away from becoming a surefire All-Star. And with Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili in the twilights of their careers, Leonard alongside Tony Parker, will be responsible for making sure the Spurs franchise seamlessly transitions from their dynastic years with Duncan to a new and equally successful era of basketball in the future.

Luckily for fans, the fate of Spurs basketball appears to be in good hands. Extra-terrestrially good hands.

When Tim Duncan hoisted up his first Larry O’Brien Trophy, Kawhi Leonard was only seven years old. Now, the two are teammates and cornerstones of the team with the best record in the NBA. The former represents all the history and past success in San Antonio; the latter represents hope for continued success in the future.

As a 20-year-old rookie, Leonard was afforded the privilege of patience. He had no burden to produce immediately as he played alongside an extensive list of Hall of Famers and seasoned veterans who mentored him. “Coming into San Antonio, I didn’t have the pressure to raise the franchise,” recalls Leonard. “It’s great to have a core group around you. They let me know what they’ve been through and let me know that I’m not growing up alone.”

For the Spurs, trading for Leonard was a calculated investment. After all, in a league in which the words “potential” and “upside” are thrown around to any prospect with an ounce of athleticism, it is often hard to distinguish the mere athletes from the athletic basketball players.

With jump-out-the-gym athleticism and terrific measurements, Leonard impressed at the combine. However, many teams passed on him as his uninspiring 25% three-point percentage in college and limited offensive game signaled that he was a more a specimen than a player. Many scouts suspected that Leonard would be a permanent offensive liability at a position where at least some offense is necessary.

San Antonio, however, saw high basketball intelligence along with the high athleticism in Leonard. The Spurs traded for him in hopes he would be an instant defensive stopper and would someday become at least competent offensively.

While his defense has been as good as advertised in his early career, Leonard’s offensive production has already exceeded what scouts projected for him in the height of his career. Leonard attributes his improvement on offense to his work ethic, “It has taken a lot of hard work, man,” said Leonard. “I am still learning how to shoot the three better but it feels good to have confidence in my shot and to know the team has confidence in me to shoot the ball.”

Why wouldn’t his team have confidence in him to shoot the ball? After all, Leonard is among the league leaders with an astounding 47% from three from the corners and a strong 40% from behind the arc overall. On offense, Leonard happily resides himself to the corners and allows the rest of the Spurs’ offense to come to him. Incredibly, every single one of Leonard’s 37 three pointers this season has been assisted on.

For Leonard, defending stars like Carmelo Anthony has become a daily assignment.

With timely shooting and a propensity to shut down scorers defensively, Leonard’s fast development has Gregg Popovich gushing about the 21-year-old’s future. In December, Popovich told Projectspurs.com that he sees a lot of Bruce Bowen’s game in his young star. Bowen, of course, was one of the greatest defenders in NBA history and was an integral piece in the Spurs dynasty of the mid-2000s. Leonard, upon hearing Popovich’s compliment, could not help but be flattered: “It obviously feels good to be compared to a player of (Bowen’s) caliber. I always like to start the game off by focusing on defense and then get going from there.”

In his short career, Leonard has already gone from being considered a “project” role player to becoming an undisputed starter. Guard Cory Joseph, who was a rookie in San Antonio with Leonard last season, noted, “His all around game is much improved. He’s a great rebounder, but, more importantly; he’s just a great player. Obviously he’s still learning to be a star but I think he will be ready soon.”

Joseph might very well be right. With nagging injuries limiting Duncan and Ginobili’s playing times of late, the team has maintained success with Leonard as a focal point in the offense. In fact, in games this season in which Leonard has scored in double figures, the Spurs are 13-2.

Team veteran Stephen Jackson, who has mentored Leonard on the court, believes it is only a matter of time before Leonard becomes a star. “(Kawhi) is definitely the centerpiece of our future. The kid is still growing. He has been able to play big minutes and make big plays for us at such a young age.” Jackson also predicts that Leonard’s offensive production will only increase as he receives more touches: “He’s a great defender now and he’ll always be a great defender. But he’s going to become a great scorer. Once we give him his confidence offensively, he’s going to be a threat on both ends.”

If Kawhi Leonard’s strides of improvement in his short career say anything about his work ethic, it is that Leonard will continue to work until there is no more untapped potential in his tank. With motivation to make his father proud and the guidance of his teammates at his disposal, Leonard needs just a little more time before he is ready to display his full talent. In the meantime, Leonard will wait patiently as his team continues to win.

As Leonard concluded, “I have a lot of aspects of my game that I haven’t gotten to show yet. I’m ready and prepared. The best is yet to come from me.”

Originally published on TheFanManifesto.com on 02/07/13

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