Kawhi Leonard may not be one for the spotlight, but that doesn’t mean we’re not going to give the strong but silent player the attention he deserves. In this article, we’ll take a look at the past and present of Leonard’s career, so we can understand what the future might hold for this humble NBA star.
It’s time for the big leagues
Leonard committed himself to basketball in high school and earned himself a spot at San Diego State in 2009. But when the NBA draft came up in 2011, Leonard decided to leave his college career behind him in order to pursue his dream of becoming an NBA player.
Thankfully for Leonard, his talents were recognized by the Indiana Pacers. However, despite making it through the draft thanks to the Pacers, Leonard wouldn’t begin his NBA career with them, as he was traded to the San Antonio Spurs the very same night.
In the Sports Illustrated article The Island of KAWHI, the author describes how little the Spurs actually knew about Leonard:
When Leonard arrived in San Antonio almost five years ago, the Spurs did not know much about him personally. Even scouts, who conduct famously comprehensive background checks, found him difficult to pin down. They were aware he was a physical marvel, 6’7″ with a 7’3″ wingspan and 11-inch hands, too strong to screen and too long to elude.
They didn’t need to know much more about soft-spoken Leonard though. By the end of the 2011-12 season, Leonard had joined the NBA’s All-Rookie First Team, as well as receiving a fourth place nomination for the Rookie of the Year Award.
He ended his rookie year with 7.9 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 1.1 assists per game.
In the following year, Leonard would help the Spurs become the Western Conference champions to face off against the Miami Heat, winners of the Eastern Conference. Unfortunately for the Spurs, Miami Heat took home the title for a consecutive year, winning four of the seven Finals games. Leonard managed to achieve 14.6 points, 11.1 rebounds, and 0.9 assists during this series of games.
He ended the season with 11.9 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 1.6 assists per game.
This season again showed impressive growth from the rising star.
In the 2014 NBA Finals, the Spurs and Heat clashed once again, but the result would not be the same as the previous year. The Spurs took the first game of the series but then lost the second game to the Heat. The Spurs then took 3 consecutive wins to claim the championship.
During the Finals, Leonard scored a career-high of 29 points, and was also named the MVP. He achieved an impressive 17.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 2.0 assists during this series.
He ended the season with 12.8 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 2.0 assists per game.
Unfortunately for Leonard, injuries put him out of a number of games for this season, including an eye infection at the beginning of the season, and an injury in his right hand later in the year.
Despite all these issues, he was recognized as the NBA Defensive Player of the Year, after achieving a career-high seven steals against the Golden State Warriors.
He ended the season with 16.5 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 2.5 assists per game, improving his performance regardless of the setbacks he faced.
The 2015-16 season saw Leonard achieve a number of personal bests, first with two games where he managed to beat his previous scoring highs with 32 points in each, before breaking this personal best with a score of 33 against the Toronto Raptors.
He also took home NBA Defensive Player of the Year again, becoming only the second player ever to receive the award for two consecutive years. He was also selected to join the NBA All-Star Game.
Leonard would end this season with 21.2 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 2.6 assists per game, again demonstrating the progress he’d made over the previous year.
Leonard went on to show the world he still had room to grow, setting three new career highs with 35 points against the Golden State Warriors, 38 points against the Phoenix Suns, and finally, 41 points against the Cleveland Cavaliers. He also achieved a postseason career-high of 37 points against the Memphis Grizzlies, before breaking that personal record in the same series with 43 points.
In a year that saw Leonard go from strength to strength, one might have been wondering when his luck would run out. His coach, Gregg Popovich, even declared at one point that Leonard was the ‘best player in the league right now’.
Unfortunately for the rising star, lady luck had other plans when a poor landing in the Western Conference finals caused the return of an existing ankle injury, removing him from play for the rest of the series.
Thankfully, Leonard recovered and was again selected for the NBA All-Star Game that season.
His final stats for the season were 25.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game, which left people wondering, “Can anything stop this man?”
Unfortunately, this year marked the beginning of the end of Leonard’s time with the Spurs. An injury to his right quadriceps, as well as a left shoulder strain, saw him play only nine games the whole season.
Leonard’s relationship with the Spurs suffered after the team’s doctors cleared him for play, despite Leonard’s own doctors believing he needed more time to recover from his injuries.
He only managed to achieve 16.2 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 2.3 assists during this season, and would not play for the Spurs again.
Leonard’s career would continue with the Toronto Raptors in what many considered to be an extremely risky trade. Despite all his injuries, that risk would pay off for the Raptors as Leonard again achieved a number of career highs, firstly scoring 45 points against the Utah Jazz, as well as a play-off high of 45 points against the Philadelphia 76ers.
Leonard also returned to the 2019 NBA Finals with the Raptors at his side, where he clinched the title and his second NBA championship in the sixth game against the Golden State Warriors. He received the MVP award again and became the first player to claim the title for teams from the Eastern and Western Conference.
Leonard ended his comeback with a new season-high of 26.6 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 3.3 assists per game.
Fast-forward to the current season, and Leonard is no longer with the Raptors, having signed a new deal with the LA Clippers.
There doesn’t seem to be anything that can stop Leonard’s meteoric rise, as he continues to improve on his personal bests. In a game against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Leonard achieved another impressive seasonal high of 42 points, which he broke shortly after when playing against the Cleveland Cavaliers, achieving an even better performance with 43 points.
He again took part in another NBA All-Star Game and was named the MVP, receiving the award that was named after recently deceased NBA megastar, Kobe Bryant.
Leonard has achieved a new seasonal peak of 27.2 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 5.3 assists per game so far, but there’s still time for him to improve his stats even further.
A positive future for Kawhi Leonard
It only takes one glance at Leonard’s stats as a professional NBA player to understand that, excluding one season where he was plagued by injuries, he continues to grow as a player and is one of the NBA’s top performers. Some might even go so far as to say he’s the current best player.
This may have some asking “What about LeBron?” – the idea that Leonard has overtaken him is increasingly supported by many sports analysts. One example of this is a recent poll from ESPN, which recognized him as the best player in the NBA. The Lineups also agree with this sentiment, with writer Michael De Leon summing up why he believes Leonard is currently the best player in the NBA:
This is not a “best in their prime” pick, it’s looking at who is best right now and I feel like Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard has eclipsed LeBron James in that regard. Leonard is the definition of a complete player. He’s gone from being a player with a limited offensive game earlier on in his career with the San Antonio Spurs. Now he’s capable of dominating inside and outside.
Jesse Washington, writing for The Undefeated, continues this trend with his analysis Not KD, not LeBron: Kawhi Leonard is the best player on the planet:
Let’s not call Kawhi Leonard “The Best Player In The Finals Because Kevin Durant Is Injured.” He’s not “The Best Player Left In The Playoffs Because LeBron James Didn’t Make It.” Nor is he “The Best Two-Way Player,” or whatever other qualification has been used to avoid confronting this new reality:
Leonard is the best player in the world. Period.
It doesn’t hurt that Leonard’s also making headlines such as this one from The Athletic: At the NBA All-Star Game, Kawhi Leonard showed the league still runs through him, further cementing the belief that while LeBron may have been the best at one point, but now it’s Leonard’s time to shine.
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