At the beginning of the season, many names were brought up in MVP conversations. You had the yearly candidates such as LeBron, James Harden, Steph Curry, Westbrook, KD, to name a few. However, not many people brought up the guy who had finished 2nd in MVP voting just the season before, Kawhi Leonard. Leonard’s rise to stardom greatly contrasts that of his superstar peers.
As many of them grew up under the spotlight, with expectations heaved at them like a snowball fight traced back to when they were still deciding what to wear to Prom, Leonard flew under the radar. Although he was Mr. California Basketball and a top 50 recruit at the time, he didn’t warrant crazy comparisons to the likes of a Jordan or Magic, he was just viewed as “pretty good.” That had summed up Kawhi’s career up until recently when Spurs legend Tim Duncan called it quits.
He was always a “system player” always “good but not great” or the so the narrative said. His early success was viewed as a product of his surroundings, the difficulty, or lack of, of his role. Even after a season ending with a championship and a Finals MVP, he was still frankly, disrespected. Critics said he couldn’t carry a team; he couldn’t be the best player on an elite team. Just another cog in the Spurs engine, a meager piece to a larger puzzle.
The Spurs have often been viewed as a machine, egoless and always working towards perfection. That brings me to the point that Leonard is the epitome of a Spur, the poster child for the organization. No displays of emotion, egoless, and robotic. That however, is a large part of why he has flown under the radar for so long. Why he isn’t mentioned in this year’s MVP race nearly as often as he deserves. He doesn’t command power like LeBron, change the game like Curry, nor scream and rage like Westbrook. He just comes to work, puts on his jersey, and goes out and takes care of business with maybe a brief smirk to show for it.
NBA superstars are known to attract the cameras, on and off the court. With their lavage lifestyle, outrageous clothing, model girlfriends, quotes and expensive sports cars. They’re TMZ prey, like road kill being swarmed by paparazzi scavengers. Then you have Kawhi, still using coupons at Wingstop and driving a ’97 Chevy Tahoe. He doesn’t need to attract attention, his on court production does that for him.
This season has been filled with historic and downright amazing achievements. From the team compositions to the unreal statistics, previously “unbreakable” records are being imminently threatened. All those things put what Kawhi Leonard is doing in a shadow. The two-time reigning defensive player of the year has become an offensive juggernaut. After having a combined 12 30 point games in his career prior to this season, he has 20 such games and counting with a quarter of the season still to go. He became the first Spur to have at least 20 30 point games since Duncan in 02-03.
Another remarkable part of his season is he has maintained efficiency with a bigger scoring role. After posting averages of 21 PPG and 7 RPG on 51/44/87 shooting splits he’s retained that efficient aspect of his game averaging 26 PPG and 6 RPG on 49/39/90 splits. His scoring average has increased by 5 points and nearly 10 points(!) just in the last two seasons. His Usage rate of 31%, his Assist rate of 17%, as well as his Free Throw rate of 42% are easily career highs. He is also 2nd in the league in PER with 28 behind only Russell Westbrook. That stat is shocking considering he isn’t known as a stat stuffer in the first place.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a player in the NBA’s decorated History like Kawhi. He’s that unique. From the unprecedented rate of development to the “Bored to death” demeanor as Coach Pop calls it. He defies all conventional beliefs society has for a superstar athlete; people simply are not used to the spectacle that is Leonard. They nitpick his deficiencies, remain skeptical in everything he accomplishes because they frankly just do not understand him. It is hard to react to something you’ve never seen.
Leonard has become the world’s greatest defender, as well as a guy who scores 30 in his sleep at near 50/40/90 splits. His game has made such a massive jump in a relatively brief period of time, this after already being a Finals MVP. He is a bonafide superstar, already a top 5 NBA player, and surely on his way to the Hall of Fame. The scariest part of all of this though… is he can and is still getting better at only 25 years old. It’s time to starting putting some “respect on his name.” He will be around for a long time so it is best to start paying attention now, as hard as he makes it being the silent Star he is.