The moment is right for Kawhi Leonard’s star turn

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Twenty-one months ago Gregg Popovich put the slowly building weight of a fanbase on Kawhi Leonard’s shoulders.

“I think he’s going to be a star. And as time goes on, he’ll be the face of the Spurs I think,” Popovich said in an August 2012 mailbag for Spurs.com. “And what makes me be so confident about him is that he wants it so badly.

“He wants to be a good player, I mean a great player… you can see that he’s going to be something else.”

He wouldn’t say it unless he thought Leonard was fit to handle the pressure, but Popovich did it nonetheless. Since then Spurs fans have been waiting patiently for Leonard to make the leap to the star Pop predicted. There have been flashes and stretches, but he has yet to sustain star-level status.

With the Spurs tied at two games apiece with the Oklahoma City Thunder headed into tonight’s paramount Game 5 in San Antonio, the timing is as good as any for Leonard to make the star label a permanent fixture next to his name.

In San Antonio’s Game 1 win, Leonard scored 16 points on 16 shots with three steals and a block in his only real standout performance of this series. Since then he’s produced four points on four field goal attempts in Game 2, 10 points on 11 shots in Game 3, and 10 points on nine attempts in Game 4 without a single steal or blocked shot. Outside of his two early 3-pointers in Game 4, Leonard was anonymous.

The San Antonio Express-News’ Buck Harvey said similar this morning:

These last two Spurs losses are as much his fault as anyone’s, too. Foul trouble affected his statistics in the Spurs’ rout in Game 2, as did Gregg Popovich benching him with the other starters Tuesday. Still, his numbers are telling.

These past three games, he has a combined 26 points, nine rebounds and little impact. He’d stripped Portland five times the night he went to the podium, and he followed with something similar in the opener against Oklahoma City. Since then, the young, athletic Spur has been overcome by the young, athletic Thunder.

It isn’t a matter of talent or work ethic when it comes to Leonard, it’s assertiveness. Knowing he was just 20 years old when he began his rookie year, the Spurs have helped Leonard to grow at his own pace since coming to San Antonio. As much as professional athlete can in this day and age, he’s been allowed to move slowly.

On the floor, he’s known his role and let Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan guide the ship. Leonard wreaked havoc in the background with his playmaking defense and improving offensive game, but it’s never been his duty to carry the team.

When the going got tough in these conference finals, Leonard was content to let his three future Hall of Fame teammates attempt to get a handle on things while he pitched in where he could. Going into Game 5, the Spurs and Leonard are no longer afforded that luxury. He has earned the right and responsibility with his play this season to take control.

He’s one of the only players on San Antonio’s roster with the ability to get to the lane amongst the trees and athletes wearing Thunder jerseys and get a good look. He’s got the long arms, huge hands, a low dribble and soft touch that are all elements of a scorer’s design. After the problems the Spurs had in Games 3 and 4 drawing fouls and getting to the free throw line, aggressiveness from Leonard is all the more important.

A disappointing performance from Kawhi Leonard on Thursday night would not be an indictment on his potential in the NBA. He is going to be a very good player for a long time, but stars are made on the biggest of stages. Kawhi Leonard wants to be a star, according to Popovich. The work he puts in on a daily basis seems to confirm that. It’s time for Leonard to be comfortable enough to take his shot.

Game 5 tips-off at 8:00 pm central time and can be seen on TNT. For fans looking for tickets to tonight’s game, visit our friends at TiqIQ.

  • junierizzle

    He has to take a page from Manu’s book and just try things out there. He has to make Pop pull his hair out like Manu did and still does. Even with deferring to the big 3 he still has had plenty of opportunities. Like the article states he has to attack the rim. How many fouls has Ibaka even received?

  • TheAdmiral50

    The question about Kawhi is does he have that killer instinct? He has all the ability to give teams fits. But he seems very passive. At times I think he is just trying to play within the Spurs system. The Spurs are not an isolation team so I think Kawhi is just taking what is giving to him, instead of just taking over. “Come on Kawhi”, the Spurs need your huge finger prints all over this game tonight!

  • Graham

    I’m hesitant to say that, because at times I saw him try just that and it lead to an ill-advised and rushed mid-range and heavily contested jumper. He’s got the tools, sure, but he’s hasn’t mastered how to pick and choose which one he should go. If he’s going to go full-manu on us, I at least want him bounding into the paint taking those point blank one handers from no more than 5 or so feet out. None of this ‘pull up after dribbling into 3 defenders’ crap I’ve been seeing.

    Agree on the challenge Ibaka part, though honestly I feel it’s more how timid the team’s been in challenging him than any lack of calls on the refs part.

  • junierizzle

    I don’t mind his mid-range shot but the threes and long twos have to go, unless he’s feeling it obviously.

    I wasn’t trying to blame it on the refs. I agree, they have been way too timid about challenging Ibaka.

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