What’s in a name? In just three short years, San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard has carried many titles, which suits his versatility. He’s been called a role player, an x-factor, and the future face of the franchise, all of which he’s worn well.
But on a night the basketball world contemplated what to dub Leonard, it was the long ago words of head coach Gregg Popovich that proved to be the most apt descriptor.
“The best thing about Kawhi is he’s a sponge,” Popovich said at the beginning of the season, repeating the same adjective he’s used for Leonard since his rookie year. “He collects information, he wants to be coached, he wants to be great, all the traits that great players have.”
So far as nicknames go, “The Sponge” rates somewhere ahead of Shaquille O’Neal’s half-baked “Sugar K” moniker, and just below the number of aliases paying tribute to Leonard’s oversized hands. But what Popovich lacks in marketing panache, he makes up for in his succinctness.
Leonard came to the Spurs a slate almost as blank as his expressionless face, but has rapidly absorbed everything arguable the NBA’s best player development staff has thrown his way, to the point that Popovich remarked he’s exhausted them. It’s the one common thread between all great players, and in the Spurs 104-82 series-clinching victory over the Portland Trail Blazers, Kawhi showcased a few more traits he has in common with legends past.
Early in the first quarter of that game, Leonard caught the ball near the three-point line and turned his back to an overzealous Nicolas Batum, getting his defender to brace for contact so he could spin off it with an explosive display of centrifugal force. Leonard missed the layup against the second line of defense, but that’s hardly the point.
Showing newfound aggressiveness, Leonard rebounded above his position like Shawn Marion in his Phoenix Suns days, pushed the fast break in Tony Parker’s absence, and like Manu Ginobili, somehow found daylight through a thicket of Trail Blazers’ arms under the rim to create passing lanes to Boris Diaw and Tim Duncan. Every aspect of his game was on display.
Closing out on a Batum three-pointer, Leonard recalled shades of Scottie Pippen, plucking a pocket pass mid-bounce, racing the length of the floor to split two defenders before finishing with a signature Michael Jordan dunk.
“Whenever he just plays freely and takes what comes—catch and shoot it, catch it and drive it, don’t think about it, don’t try to make a great play, just play the game—then you get a game out of him like this,” Popovich said of Leonard’s 22-point, seven rebound, five steal performance. “It’s becoming more and more this kind of game than the defer kind of game.”
Two years ago, Leonard ceded minutes to Stephen Jackson and shots to everyone else against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Now in the midst of his third playoff run, Kawhi has never known a year where the San Antonio Spurs didn’t reach the Western Conference Finals. If he’s going to make a second consecutive NBA Finals appearance, he’s going to have to show how much information he’s absorbed since his 2012 series against Kevin Durant.
The cornrows and stoic expression are the same, but Leonard truly finds himself a different player. No longer confined to the corners, Leonard doesn’t hesitate to call his own number when he sees a matchup he favors.
His toolbox is still mostly limited to a few simple moves—a jab step to free his jumper from the mid post, a crossover to create space for a pull-up jumper, and a drop step to get to a floater over smaller defenders—but he’s become exponentially better at using each of them.
Right now, his opportunities still arise mostly in transition, where less than a handful of players are as adept at creating offense from defense as quickly as Leonard. But in the half court Leonard has shown a burgeoning post game operating from the same go-to spots Tim Duncan used in his prime.
When Duncan leaves, and the real estate he occupies on the court becomes more readily accessible to Leonard, Popovich (or whoever might be coaching the Spurs at the time) can reach back to the archives and dust off some of the “Four Down” plays that once formed the foundations of the Spurs motion offense. But for now, the Spurs are still trying to figure out what to make of their young prodigy while he continues to learn who he is as a player and how to assert himself in lineups occupied by three future Hall of Famers.
“He knows what he wants to attack and how he wants to attack,” Duncan said. “We at times don’t know when that is, but we’re figuring it out. You’ve got to let him loose and let him do what he has to do.”
Three years in, it’s still hard to get a read on Leonard. His disposition isn’t sweet enough to be “Sugar K”, his game a tad too unrefined to be lauded as “Fundamental” or “Truth”, and his role too malleable to define. For now, the Spurs don’t care, and perhaps never will.
What’s in a name? That which we call Kawhi by any other name would dunk just as sweet.