Folks in San Antonio were subject to a pleasant surprise last year after George Hill was flipped for rookie Kawhi Leonard on draft night. The move was questioned initially, but after Leonard eventually proved his worth, few will second guess the trade.
The standout rookie impressed many with his immediate impact, as both a three-point wizard and a defensive specialist. His work ethic was credited to be among the league's best as the budding star never fell short of praise.
Even San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was quick to commend the young forward out of San Diego State, comparing him to Spurs great Bruce Bowen before showing his admiration with the ultimate praise, via NBA.com.
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.
However, while Leonard certainly has the talent and ethic to evolve into one of the league's top small forwards, the lavish praise may be unwarranted, at least for a player in his first year.
Leonard has been fantastic on defense, as many predicted he would be entering the 2011 NBA draft. His tenacity has been unrivaled among other Spurs players, and even in the broader spectrum of the entire league, Leonard's defense ranks among the elite.
Jeff McDonald @JMcDonald_SAEN
Pop on emergence of Kawhi Leonard: "As far as defense goes, he can pretty much lead the way for this team."2012-11-4 00:12:34
Off-ball, he has a knack for intercepting passes, and his on-ball defense leads to a few thefts each night. For a team that is looking to revive the defensive mindset, Leonard is a perfect candidate to run the perimeter defense.
Despite his defensive aptitude, the Association has transitioned into an offensive league, and on that side of the court Leonard is still a bit raw.
He entered the league with low expectations as far as shooting goes, but hushed naysayers after proving his ability to connect from downtown.
He also has shown a unique ability to drive, and is rapidly improving from a playmaking perspective.
While he does possess the ability to score in numerous ways, he hasn't shown the ability to be a consistent scorer, and until he does so, its difficult to anoint him as the team's next star.
Aside for his offensive struggles, however, labeling him as the face of the team is unnecessary at this point in his career. While he certainly possesses the tools to one day receive the title, designating him this early on is unnecessary when considering how much longer the Spurs will still be Tony Parker's team.
Every team has more than one star, but Parker has become an unquestioned superstar in this league. At just 30 years of age, he still has plenty of good years ahead of him, and in that time Leonard will serve as a sidekick and as a leading role player early on.
Leonard is just 21 years old and is still far from reaching his prime. Eventually he will claim the Spurs as his team, but predetermining that is unnecessary as there is no need to rush him. There is still plenty of room to grow, and the future is bright—but stardom won't be achieved for Kawhi Leonard in the near future.