After the San Antonio Spurs’ victory over the Atlanta Hawks on Saturday, from a numbers perspective, a change occurred.
Spurs sophomore Kawhi Leonard’s 23 points in the victory over the Hawks put him as the third leading scorer on the Spurs team with 12.1 points per game. For one night, Manu Ginobili (11.9 points) was no longer the third leading scorer in San Antonio.
With Ginobili only playing 59 of 75 games this season thus far due to countless injuries, Leonard has started to initiate himself more in the offense. Two weeks ago, Denver Nuggets head coach George Karl said his staff had taken notice of Leonard, though Karl felt Leonard’s breakout season will be coming next season.
“We’re big fans,” said Karl of Leonard before the Spurs defeated the Nuggets 100-99 on March 27.
“We actually had this discussion the other day – Pop has this way of elevating guys into stardom. I don’t think he’ll get there this year but I have a feeling he’ll have a more major part in the carousel of superstars that come out of San Antonio.”
Against the Nuggets, Leonard posted 11 points, seven rebounds, and two steals that night. Karl discussed what makes Leonard such a rare product at his young age.
“Early in his career, it’s his tenacity. He plays at a high level. He’s a high engine guy,” said Karl. “He’s a good defensive player who has the passion to be a factor in different ways. He has a commitment to any possession that very few players have.”
What sets Leonard apart from other young players in the NBA? The fact that Leonard is playing on a team that could win the Western Conference with its three stars still available.
“He’s contributing on a winning team. I have a lot of respect for him. There are a lot of guys who can put up numbers on losing teams,” continued Karl, “but he’s putting up numbers on a team that has to win 55 to 60 games.”
Not since 2003, had any player other than Stephen Jackson (11.3 points) held the third leading scorer position over Ginobili.
As the regular season is showing, Leonard’s already making the jump in his second season and for a few days; he’s officially the Spurs’ third leading scorer behind Tony Parker and Tim Duncan.
The next step for Leonard is to see whether he will continue to assert himself like he’s done lately when both Parker and Ginobili return to the lineup presumably in the NBA playoffs. Will Leonard make the Spurs a legitimate “Big 4”, or will he sway back into his role player role when the other two guards return?
Only late April, May, and possibly June will tell.