The 21-year-old is the future of an organization that for so long has been headlined by Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. While the veteran core should remain intact, it’s the Spurs’ young wing who will carry San Antonio into its next era.
Leonard is of another generation, and by the time he finishes his Spurs career, Duncan could be in his 50s. When Duncan was drafted with the No. 1 pick on June 25, 1997, Leonard was just four days away from turning six years old.
Leonard has just finished his second season, but he appears to be the real deal.
He was second in shots taken behind Duncan in the Spurs’ Game 7 loss, going 8-of-17 for 19 points and a game-high 16 rebounds. Forget Ginobili, it was Leonard who was the Spurs’ third star this postseason, and he was San Antonio's third-highest scorer through the playoffs at 13.5 points per game on 54.5 percent shooting.
"[Kawhi] really is a star in the making," Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich said, via Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated. "He's just beginning to feel what he has. He's like a little baby learning how to walk, as far as the NBA is concerned."
Of course, it wasn’t all cheery in a finals series loss.
Growth often comes with pain, and Leonard’s hurt came with a large thump on the grandest stage. The memory that may haunt Leonard’s fantastic postseason was his missed free throw late in Game 6 that ultimately kept the Miami Heat alive.
It doesn’t take away from Leonard’s future, however, as his versatile game is still developing. The San Diego State product is the team’s top athlete and has bought into a system that allows him a wide range of responsibilities.
The 6’7” forward has a wingspan of 7’3”—enough to fit Roy Hibbert within it—which makes him a naturally gifted rebounder. The maturation of Leonard’s defense includes his ability to defend on-ball, jump passing lanes and rotate to help on all positions.
As an offensive player, Leonard remains a slasher, with enough strength to finish past bigger interior defenders and enough quickness to move past smaller wings and guards. In Game 7, he found a rhythm exhibiting a close-range hook shot in the lane. With his arms, that shot could become an incredible weapon.
Leonard can hit the three-point shot, but he will need to find more consistency from behind the arc if he wants to lead a Spurs perimeter offense that thrives on spacing. Leonard was 1.1-of-2.8 (39 percent) from three-point range in the postseason.
He also needs to do as all superstars do and find his way to the free-throw line. He averaged just 2.2 attempts from the line in the regular season and 2.3 attempts in the playoffs.
These are things that will come with time, especially in the well-coached Spurs system.
There’s a modest demeanor to Leonard that is perfectly suitable for a Spurs team that puts winning ahead of superstardom. “I'm a role player,” Leonard told Ramona Shelburne of ESPN during the finals. “I am. I'm not getting no plays called for me out on the floor. I'm not getting no isos. So I'm a role player. I'm playing off of Tim, Tony and Manu, the players [that] get isos.”
Soon, though, all that’s going to change.
As San Antonio envisions its system moving forward, undoubtedly Leonard will be a focal point.
The Spurs can keep winning with him as the face, but that doesn’t mean he will have to do it alone. Duncan doesn’t appear ready to retire, based upon his reaction after Game 7, and Parker is still just 31 years old.
Shooter Danny Green isn’t going anywhere, and the Spurs have a knack for signing players to lesser-paid contracts, so Tiago Splitter could also return.
The Spurs aren’t finished—they’re just shifting into a new era, one that will be headlined by Leonard and Parker.