Ask Gregg Popovich about his golf handicap, and he’ll say he hasn’t hit a ball in over a decade. Ask him about his favorite music, and he’ll rattle off artists like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Led Zepplin, Usef and anyone else not named Stak5 (err, Stephen Jackson). You can even ask him about his favorite beer, and he’ll answer, “Stroh’s. In the tall bottle.” Coach Pop has a dry sense of humor, and can sometimes come across as less loving than Bobby Knight. The last thing you’d expect from him is hyperbole. But here we are, at the end of August, and Popovich is calling Kawhi Leonard a future star. And he means it.
In fact, not just a star either, but the future face of the franchise. In an online Q&A with fans over at Spurs.com, the longtime San Antonio coach covered a variety of topics, but what stuck out was his opinion on his 21-year-old small forward who averaged 7.9 points and 5.1 rebounds a game last year:
“I think he’s going to be a star. And as time goes on, he’ll be the face of the Spurs I think. At both ends of the court, he is really a special player. 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. He comes early, he stays late, and he’s coachable, he’s just like a sponge. When you consider he’s only had one year of college and no training camp yet, you can see that he’s going to be something else.”
As the No. 15 pick out of San Diego State in last summer’s draft (selected first by Indiana and then traded), Leonard was expected to be a good player, a versatile wing who could score off the ball and perhaps defend three different positions with his length, athleticism and Raptor-sized hands.
He was a football player growing up, and it wasn’t until a growth spurt took him to 6-4 as a sophomore at King High School in Riverside, California did he switch to the hardwood. His skills are underdeveloped: he’s not someone who gets chased off the three-point line – shooting under 40 percent on spot-up jumpers – and he barely averaged one dime a night last season. But he maximizes his talent. Even without much of an offensive game, Leonard still finished as the 16th most efficient player in the league on a per possession basis.
This season with the expected continuing decline of the older wing players around him, and the Spurs’ continued emphasis on a wide-open, spread attack, Leonard will get more opportunities as a one-on-one ballhandler. It’ll make him better in the long run, but it’ll probably eat into last season’s nearly 50 percent shooting, as well as balloon his low turnover average.
Leonard will improve, but his chances of becoming an All-Star are slim. After all, there are only 24 spots available every year. If that’s what Pop means by calling him a future star, then he’s probably wrong for once. But in typically Gregg Popovich fashion, I’m guessing he means something a little different, and I wouldn’t at all be surprised to see Leonard put up 17/8 with two steals and one block averages in his prime.
How good can Leonard be?
Follow Sean on Twitter at @SEANesweeney.
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.