Minnesota Timberwolves forward Andrei Kirilenko was once an All-Star back in his 2004 season with the Utah Jazz. Then, at the age of 22, Kirilenko was known as a defensive monster on the perimeter as he averaged 16.5 points, 8.1 rebounds, 1.9 steals, and 2.8 blocks per game.
Fast forward nine years later, Kirilenko now at the age of 31, was only able to score five points, grab six rebounds, and steal two passes in his team’s season finale victory over the San Antonio Spurs.
Prior to the game, I caught up with Kirilenko in the Wolves locker room and asked him about his thoughts on a young player who has the potential to be an All-Star one day, Spurs sophomore Kawhi Leonard.
“I think he’s a really talented promising player who is blossoming under Popovich,” said Kirilenko. “He’ll be a very crucial part for San Antonio. He’s a guy who can really cover both defense and offense.”
Before the Spurs’ season finale with the Timberwolves, Leonard was about to end the regular season as the Spurs’ third leading scorer.
“He’s the complete player,” continued Kirilenko. “With him having Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili on the team, it’s opened up opportunities for him to be unattended.”
As he wraps up his second NBA regular season, Leonard now prepares to face the playoffs for the second time in his career. As a rookie, he was an efficient shooter from 3-point range in the playoffs and was the Spurs’ prime perimeter defender.
Heading into Sunday’s round one game, Leonard is still regarded as the best perimeter defender on the Spurs, and though his outside shooting has hit a minor wall, he has expanded his game offensively inside, outside, in the midrange, and especially in the open court.
With Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili all looking healthy and in sync in the second quarter of the their loss to the Timberwolves on Wednesday, where the team scored 37 points, Leonard will now have to see if he will still be able to contribute offensively in the postseason at a high level, like he had done when one or two of them were hurt.
The playoffs are where players ultimately make their mark. For Leonard, this will be his opportunity to show the national audience he’s much more than the Spurs’ fourth best role player. Instead, he might propel himself into fans calling him part of the “Big 4.”