One free throw.
Kawhi Leonard is one free throw away from being a bonafide star.
With 19.4 seconds left in Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals, Leonard had the opportunity to hit a pair of free throws in a trip to the line and all but lock up the San Antonio Spurs’ fifth championship in franchise history.
He went 1-for-2.
And while the pain from that missed free throw will undoubtedly radiate inside the 22-year-old small forward for the remainder of his career, that pain will also serve to propel Leonard to the upper echelons of the NBA’s elite talents.
Players and coaches will often tell you a single shot doesn’t hold all responsibility for a game’s outcome. But to the player who misses that pivotal shot, those words of condolence are as hollow as a drum.
After watching San Antonio’s young phenom for nearly two weeks, I knew exactly how he would respond in Game 7—just one game after one of the darkest moments of his entire basketball life.
In the midst of celebrating Miami’s historic night, I turned to my father and said, “They better watch out for Leonard on Thursday night. That kid is going to have a huge game.”
And sure enough, Leonard showed up to Game 7 and played like he was carrying the fate of the world on his shoulders. 19 points and 16 rebounds later, he had given San Antonio everything he had, despite the Spurs falling to the Heat.
Those six games before the final 48 minutes of the NBA season were all I needed to see in order to come to the same conclusion everyone else was arriving at across the nation.
Leonard isn’t just a good player. He’s special.
Room for growth
There's little doubt Leonard will achieve star status soon enough. In fact, after his performance throughout the postseason, I don't think it's a stretch by any means to say he's already there.
Over the course of the regular season, Leonard averaged six rebounds per game. In the postseason, he raised that average to nine per game.
He raised his field-goal percentage from 49 to 55 percent, including a jump from 37 to 39 percent from three.
His suffocating defense resulted in 1.8 steals per game in the postseason.
The only glaring weakness on Leonard's resume lies in the area of free throws. He was actually solid from the line during the regular season, shooting an admirable 83 percent. However, that percentage dropped all the way down to 63 percent in the postseason.
And it's safe to say that after Game 6's nightmare for Leonard, the Spurs' forward can be expected to come out improved at the charity stripe next season.
Standing at 6’7’’ and weighing in at 225 pounds, Leonard also boasts an incredible 7’3’’ wingspan. It’s not difficult to see why the former 15th-overall pick is quickly opening the eyes of basketball fans everywhere.
To put it simply, Leonard is a physical freak of nature.
But that’s only a small fraction of the equation as to why the Spurs’ forward is well on his way to superstar status.
There are plenty of physically gifted players in this league. There are not plenty of players, however, who possess the work ethic and knowledge of the game Leonard does.
Michael Beasley, who stands at 6’7’’ with a 7’ wingspan and is known for his incredible athleticism, is the first name that comes to mind. When Miami drafted Beasley with the second-overall pick in 2008, the expectations were high that he could be the kind of player that changes a franchise.
Now, after just five years in the league, Beasley is already a forgotten name who has been mired by character issues, laziness and mediocrity on the court.
Only the beginning
Leonard, on the other hand, is already in position to become the focal point of one of the most successful franchises in American professional sports over the past decade. With Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili all on the backside of their careers, Leonard figures to be the future in San Antonio.
A very bright future.
Though he will likely never forget that free throw on a midsummer night in Miami, that miss will be nothing but a distant memory in the minds of NBA fans by the time Leonard’s career comes to a close.
At 22 years old and with less than two full seasons of experience, Kawhi Leonard is just getting started.