Next month, former San Antonio Spurs’ forward Bruce Bowen will see his jersey lifted to the rafters of the AT&T Center rafters.
It is likely that a current player, also known for his defensive prowess, will be taking special notice.
The Spurs targeted Kawhi Leonard in the NBA Draft, and even made a very unpopular move in trading away fan-favorite George Hill to get their man.
Since Bowen’s career came to a close at the end of the 2008-09 season, the Spurs have lacked a perimeter defender, and while they brought in Keith Bogans, Ime Udoka and several other potential replacements, none could hold a candle to Duncan and Spurs fans saw the transition to an offensive-minded team.
But the draft-day trade for Leonard was an aggressive move to try to eventually get back some of what they lost in Bowen.
The comparisons started coming in with solid defensive games against Houston’s Kevin Martin and Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant.
The Spurs loved Leonard’s freakish length when they traded for him on draft day. They also loved his massive hands, his explosive starts and sudden stops, his willingness to play D. The wide space between those long arms represented a metaphor for his potential.
What no one expected was Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich to put a name and face on that potential two weeks into the season. After Leonard shut down Houston’s Kevin Martin during the final, critical stretch of an overtime victory on Jan. 11, Pop recognized bits of Bruce Bowen, one of the great perimeter defenders in NBA history. “It’s huge for us,” Pop said in his post-game remarks, “to have a guy on the team that can do similar things to what Bruce did in the past.”
Now the comparisons are coming from Bowen himself, according to a recent column by Ken Rodriguez on Spurs.com.
“I don’t think he’s Bruce,” says Bowen, whose No. 12 jersey the Spurs will retire in March. “I think he can be better than Bruce. I wish at 20 I looked like him.”
At Leonard’s age, Bowen was fighting to establish himself in the Big West Conference. The rookie, meanwhile, was knocking down a preseason game-winner against the Houston Rockets. “I think he has all the natural skills,” Bowen says, “to become special.”
Leonard is already starting to look special. Aside from his ability to defend, he’s capable of keeping up with the Spurs’ bigs for rebounds and his offense is steadily coming along.
For a 20-year-old rookie, Leonard also possesses the confidence and poise of an NBA veteran.
Asked about playing the much-hyped Clippers early in the season, Leonard told me at the time that he was just looking forward to playing another game. Leonard has also used the word “fun” to describe guarding everyone from Rudy Gay to LeBron James.
Tonight he can look forward to even more fun against Andre Iguodala when the Spurs play the Philadelphia 76ers at 6 p.m. tonight.