After two very productive seasons at San Diego State, Kawhi Leonard entered the 2011 NBA Draft with relatively little fanfare. A majority of the attention was directed towards Kyrie Irving, who went first overall to the Cavaliers, while Derrick Williams, Kemba Walker, Jimmer Fredette and the Morris twins were nice secondary stories.
Leonard had been projected by many to be drafted in the top-10, but he slipped to the 15th pick when the Pacers selected him.
He was then flipped to the Spurs for George Hill. On the podium minutes after his selection, Leonard appeared confused about the type of role he would play in Indiana until he was informed that he was headed to San Antonio.
A light seemed to go off in his head.
“I feel good. I had a meeting with them, and I got a great vibe from them,” Leonard said of the Spurs last June. “Just any team I’m on, I’m happy with right now. I’m just going in, trying to do whatever the coach wants me to do to make the team successful.”
Leonard came into the NBA with a good opportunity at becoming a rotation player right now due to both his athleticism and defensive mentality. With the Spurs coming off a first round exit at the hands of the younger Grizzlies in the 2011 NBA Playoffs, the roster was in dire need of the former.
Leonard earned the trust of Gregg Popovich during this season’s abbreviated training camp and played 14 minutes in his professional debut on Dec. 26 (six points and six rebounds against the Grizzlies). Since then, his playing time has steadily increased. He averaged 28.2 minutes per game in March, while contributing 11.1 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.7 steals.
He is in the enviable position of being a rookie on a good team that is also getting considerable run.
“I didn’t anticipate that at all. I was just trying to make sure I got drafted,” Leonard told RealGM when asked if he could have foreseen his good fortune.
A hybrid forward, Leonard shot 55.5% from the field last month, including 43.2% from deep. You could say that he is a very good rebounder for someone who hangs around the perimeter more than most forwards, or that he has a great shot for a player with his length.
He is far from polished offensively, but in true San Antonio fashion, they haven’t asked him to step outside of his comfort zone. He fits very nicely into what Popovich has done this season, but there may come a time when his tweener status will be a problem. Leonard is too slight to bang with a traditional power forward and if asked to score more as a three, he won’t be nearly as efficient.
Leonard has attempted more than eight shots in just 15 of his 51 games.
An injury to Manu Ginobili, opened up a spot in the starting lineup in early January and the rookie handled the promotion well. He was featured a bit more offensively as a starter, attempting more shots (8.0 to 4.9) in eight more minutes of playing time.
“He didn’t talk to me much about it,” Leonard said of what Popovich asked of him when he entered the starting lineup. “He just said I’d be starting, but my role with the team would be the same. My role really hasn’t changed as the season has gone on.”
That role involves playing tough defense, hitting a few perimeter shots and crashing the boards. He’s done all of those things well. He grabs a higher percentage of available offensive rebounds than Tim Duncan (8.4% to 7.7%), rarely turns the ball over and has a low usage rate for someone with an above-average PER (17.0). He also has the second-best defensive rating among San Antonio’s regulars.
Only Tony Parker (5.9) and Duncan (4.4) have more Win Shares than Leonard (4.3).
“I learn a lot each game, just competing and valuing each possession,” Leonard said of his veteran teammates. “They’ve taught me to play hard every game.”