The long arms of Kawhi Leonard

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AT&T Center–It does not to take much to induce a profanity laced rant from San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich. Just ask Richard Jefferson, who was on the receiving end of a particularly nasty one for relaxing on a Kyle Lowry three-pointer that put the Rockets back in striking distance in the final minute of regulation.

But after the win against Houston, Popovich voluntarily let slip the rarely used five-letter “B” word in describing Spurs rookie Kawhi Leonard’s first start. And by “B” word I am of course referring to Bowen, or Bruce Bowen–which is still, in fact, a dirty word across many NBA locker rooms.

“It’s huge for us to have a guy on the team that can do similar things to what Bruce [Bowen] did in the past,” Popovich said. “This young man’s got a lot to learn, but he’s very willing, very versatile, and I think he’s got the ability to be one heck of a player.”

That is not to say Leonard is now, or ever will be, the quality of defender Bowen was for the Spurs. But the versatility, the ability to legitimately guard four positions on the basketball court, is certainly something the Spurs have lacked since Bruce Bowen’s retirement.

Over the past several games Leonard has been thrown in the fire while the Spurs have come away, for lack of a better word, torched. Kevin Durant 21 points on 5-9 shooting, Stephen Jackson a season-high 34 points, and time spent chasing Kevin Martin (18 points) and Kyle Lowry (22 points).

Each matchup has been a lesson. In defending Kevin Durant, Leonard learned a lesson in humility–that sometimes even the best defense can be beaten. For Bowen each night was a thankless job, some nights getting lit up by a Kobe Bryant without an opportunity to return the favor. But it was a short memory that allowed Bowen, and so far Leonard, the ability to maintain the same focus and effort each defensive possession without a hint of discouragement.

Against Stephen Jackson, Leonard learned that all the length in the world matters little if one does not get his hands up guarding a streaky shooter. And against Kevin Martin, Kawhi Leonard learned when you stick your arms out you’ve already fouled Martin, you just don’t know it yet. But the most important lesson?

“Well he’s learning the better defense you play, the more you’re going to be on the court, and the more you’re on the court the more opportunities you have to hit shots,” Spurs forward Richard Jefferson said. “And when you’re a rookie you get so much thrown at you. With no summer league, with no real training camp, to come into a really complicated system. He’s learned it’s just pretty much play defense.

“I think early on he was still trying to justify himself on the court by hitting shots, shooting threes, trying to make an impact on the game that way,” Jefferson added. “Now he knows that if he just goes and plays defense consistently, he’s going to get those minutes, and those minutes in turn are going to help lead to some good offense.”

Leonard’s quick education has been rewarded over the last three games to the tune of 30-plus minutes and key four quarter court time. In return Leonard posted his first double-double against the Oklahoma City Thunder (13 points, 10 rebounds), a career-high 19 points in Milwaukee, and 11 points and eight rebounds in last night’s win against the Rockets.

More importantly in the fourth quarter and overtime, matched minute for minute with Kevin Martin at 12:29 each, Leonard held Martin scoreless and pulled six rebounds, making the kind of stops that would not have been possible (certainly not the rebounds) with a three guard lineup including George Hill.

“Guarding the best player always helps your game,” Leonard said. “It involves being physical and playing at a high level every game.”

The San Antonio Spurs will need Kawhi Leonard to play at a high level defensively if they wish to reach their goals this season. As a defensive-minded rookie with untapped potential, Leonard’s development represents the best chance for improving a defense that ranks in the 20s in most important statistical categories.

“Ten games in now and you can start looking at [the defense] and we’re in the 20’s. High 20’s in field goal percentage, low 20’s in points per game,” Popovich said. “That just won’t get anything done. That’ll portend to a very mediocre basketball season if that doesn’t improve.

“He’s one of the guys in our group that is making a good honest minute-to-minute effort to show that he knows what we want.”