Kawhi Leonard’s conundrum
AT&T CENTER — Kawhi Leonard stood in front of his locker in the aftermath of a Game 2 win which saw the rookie post an impressive 18 point and 10 rebound double-double. The scrum laid out between he and I went so deep I didn’t bother to try and record any audio or video.
Leonard stood there patiently, fielding question after question from the gathered media until he was free to leave. I stood there and marveled at the exponential increase in media that the Conference Finals brings.
Scouring the interwebs this morning, there wasn’t a lot of ink or pixels spilled on Leonard’s behalf after his performance against the Thunder on Tuesday night. There are many a passing mention in recaps about his stat line, but little more. Perhaps it’s because of the sound bytes and quotes he doles out on a regular basis.
Last night’s edition included such lines as “They started to come back and the lead got shorter” and “I just try to go out there and play my hardest and I want to win.”
No one will confuse Kawhi Leonard with Stephen Jackson, someone completely at ease in front of the throng of reporters and camera crews, ready to hand out quick-witted responses like candy on Halloween. Wayne Vore of The Big Fundamental and I joked in the locker room that the Spurs’ media relations folks should perform the equivalent of Pop not playing Duncan, Parker and Ginobili in a game by sending Kawhi to the podium for the postgame press conference.
And yet, if it wasn’t for Tony Parker’s night, one that saw the Spurs point guard shoot 16-21 from the field for 34 points, you could’ve made the argument that Kawhi deserved to be the one front and center.
The Big Island is miles ahead of where many expected him to be as a rookie on a veteran team. The book on him coming in was that he was going to be a defense-first player who will be molded into something resembling Bruce Bowen some day. Leonard shot 29% from the college 3-point line as a sophomore, any offense the Spurs received from Leonard would be the decorations on whatever defensive cake he brought to the party.
Instead, Leonard has displayed a far more advanced offensive game than anyone outside of the Spurs organization could possibly have predicted. He shot almost 38% from the 3-point line as a rookie thanks to the work he’s done with Spurs shooting coach Chip Engelland this season. He’s also had a player efficiency rating (PER) of 16.10 this season, which measures all of a player’s box score contributions.
“Kawhi Leonard is a really quick learner. He’s got a work ethic that’s really impressive,” Coach Pop said after the game. “I’ve learned as the year went along to believe in him more and more.”
Leonard hasn’t made Pop second guess himself either. Leonard’s decision making offensively is extremely far along for a first year NBA player. He knows when to go all the way to the rim and when to pull up short for a floater or 10 foot jumper, something too many young players with the length and spring of Leonard never grasp. He also has a quiet, underrated passing ability.
Defensively, he’s been almost as good as advertised. He’s not the harassing, relentless defender Bruce Bowen was but he’s working towards it. He spent the entire first quarter in Game 2 matched up on the Thunder’s Kevin Durant and played a physical brand of defense that would’ve made the old school types proud. Leonard’s battle with Durant lasted for the majority of Kawhi’s 35 minutes on the floor and the rookie committed only one foul.
“He has no fear,” Coach Pop said. “He’s enjoying guarding the guys he’s had to guard all year long.”
Kawhi Leonard has a problem. If he keeps performing like this, playing a far more advanced role in the NBA Playoffs than a 20-year-old rookie should, he’s going to keep having to speak to the media. People want to know the stories of the playoffs and Leonard is slowly becoming one of them.
There will be far more scrum time and requests for one-on-one interviews. But you can expect that Leonard will continue the way he has, treating the media like his opponents. He isn’t going to make it easy on them.