After Star Turn in NBA Finals, Spurs' Kawhi Leonard Faces True Test of Talents

Kevin Ding@@KevinDingNBA Senior WriterJune 17, 2014

David Sherman/Getty Images

Sorry to be the voice of reason, possible hater and rain cloud on the San Antonio Spurs' victory parade Wednesday, but it's important to maintain perspective when it comes to this Kawhi Leonard coronation.

First, a quick reality check on what just happened:

Leonard's NBA Finals MVP performance was truly uncommon, and not in the way we usually mean. Leonard scored at least 20 points in the last three games, after he'd never put together such a modest scoring streak before in his entire three-year NBA career. As irresistible as his coming-of-age narrative is, the mathematical aberration is irrefutable.

Second, Leonard's success has changed his personal reality forever—and that's not all good for him, considering how little he wants and how ill-equipped he is to deal with the demands that come with fame.

He's on the runway, no doubt. But truly taking off is so complicated—a pressure-packed jumble of eyeballs and expectations and beyond-gravitational pulls clouding the air space that once could be breathed so fresh and easy.

Leonard just wants to put his head down and get better at basketball. Alas, that's not his life anymore.

"I hope you don't put too much pressure on him," Tony Parker said to reporters after the Game 5 clincher Sunday night, "because he's still got time. We do it as a team and we play together. Kawhi won that award, and it's well deserved. At the same time, you have to let him grow. He's only 22."

Kawhi Leonard's unprecedented three-game scoring spree in the Finals came without the benefit of having any plays called for him.
Kawhi Leonard's unprecedented three-game scoring spree in the Finals came without the benefit of having any plays called for him.Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

Remember, Parker previously replaced Tim Duncan as the Spurs' NBA Finals MVP. Parker has long been viewed as the odd bird in San Antonio who actually liked the spotlight, but his words allude to the considerable adjustment he knows Leonard will face.

Kevin Durant already drizzled on Leonard's party a bit with a since-deleted Twitter reality check Sunday night—Durant scoffing at a suggestion that Leonard is better than Paul George. Durant's point is no disrespect to Leonard; it's honesty that an awful lot goes into being a superstar, specifically the attention it draws from the defense and the general populace.

Consider Durant a supreme expert on the topic and believe him when he offers some perspective on the flip side of crediting Leonard for being productive with no offensive sets run for him: When you are responsible for creating shots for yourself and your team against intense defensive focus, you learn how carefree life for the other guys truly is. And let's be clear that Leonard's offense for now is mostly a result of the ball movement triggered by Parker and Manu Ginobili, two famously stellar passers.

There's going to be a time next season, especially when Parker, Duncan and/or Ginobili are resting or injured and the Spurs lose, where people will wonder why Leonard isn't stepping up.

Why the Finals MVP isn't stepping up.

The proof that Leonard is unlikely to take that step next season can be found in the present: The impetus for his last three big games of the Finals was a Gregg Popovich cattle prod of "be aggressive" coach speak.

Gregg Popovich has said that Kawhi Leonard is the player around which the Spurs will try to build their future.
Gregg Popovich has said that Kawhi Leonard is the player around which the Spurs will try to build their future.Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Leonard responded, and he will respond in the future, too, because he is a dedicated, diligent guy whom Popovich mostly leaves alone out of respect for Leonard's desire to do the right things. But people won't accept anywhere close to 12.8 points per game again next season, even though the Spurs' offense will remain a team-share with the veterans still around.

Meanwhile, even if he's not inclined to, those around Leonard will be pushing him to claim a bigger piece of the post-championship pie. It's commonplace for any team trying to repeat that egos swell with inner circles telling every player how great he is now, and Leonard's situation is well beyond that scale. The calculations for him include the max contract he will be trying to earn as a restricted free agent a year from now unless the Spurs ante up for a massive contract extension this summer.

In some ways, he needs to ask for more.

The sweet-passing Spurs won't be able to just stay the same. Champions always have to improve and adjust and even reinvent themselves the way Popovich's teams have in winning their staggered championships.

Maybe Popovich makes Leonard's nice, clean post-up game the Spurs' main interior set piece over Duncan's back-to-the-basket skill set? Even so, the Spurs don't want to play the post game much. The Spurs could end up having to ask Leonard to create more off the dribble, too.

But instead of Leonard being "the perfect Spur" for his understated, uncomplicated, blue-collar persona, it might soon become a problem that he doesn't have the ego to buck for more touches and push the team toward the new progress it must find.

Even if Leonard does somehow meet everyone's statistical expectations, he'll just have to answer more of the questions he already tries to dodge. And when he answers in one-sentence, nearly comma-less, very colorless ways—as he did with the first four questions from familiar local reporters at Spurs practice on the first off day of the Western Conference Finals—people will want much more from him, too.

Tony Parker and the Spurs have stressed that for what Kawhi Leonard has accomplished, he still has a lot to develop at the age of 22.
Tony Parker and the Spurs have stressed that for what Kawhi Leonard has accomplished, he still has a lot to develop at the age of 22.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

That includes his teammates.

You can't just be the little brother anymore if you're going to be a big gun on the team.

Duncan has done it his low-key way, reluctantly accepting the spokesman podium that comes with basketball prominence, but for as quiet as he is, Timmy D is a leader. Duncan actually has plenty of personality, and he uses it well to bring the team together and get guys to follow his work ethic. Leonard is going to have to find a voice, too.

One way or another for Leonard, for better or worse, imbalance awaits.

The comfort zone is gone, along with the days when few continued to dwell on his missed free throw with 19.4 seconds left in Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals, costing San Antonio a four-point lead. (Ray Allen's everything-changing three-pointer for Miami tied the score at the other end.)

As much as these are happy days for Leonard, and rightfully so, being on the runway means being on the radar.

Change is coming, and he'd better be ready to accept it.


Kevin Ding covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.


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