After Leonard scored 19 points and grabbed five rebounds on the Magic in a 22-point preseason win for the Spurs, I caught up with Magic head coach Jacque Vaughn and forward Arron Afflalo to ask what they’ve observed as far as Leonard’s growth now that he’s had two seasons under his belt.
“Kawhi’s really brought his game,” said Vaughn, who was an assistant coach with the Spurs during Leonard’s rookie year in the 2011-2012 season. “You see that his confidence level he’s playing with, his ability to take the ball off the board, he did it in college, but to do it and play at this level is pretty impressive.”
What Vaughn is referring to is how Leonard can grab a defensive rebound and then burst out in the open court in transition to attack the defense before it's set, usually with the result being two points or even an and-1 opportunity.
“He’s playing with a great ease to him,” continued Vaughn, “and I think that he has a coach that’s encouraging him to do that and it looks like’s keeping his end of the bargain.”
Afflalo, who has played with small forwards like Carmelo Anthony and Tayshaun Prince in his career, also gave his input on Leonard’s growth through two seasons.
“He looked great, he looked great,” said Afflalo. “He had an amazing first half: his aggressiveness, his confidence in his shot, he's got all the intangibles to play both ends of the court really well, so I'm impressed with his development and I'm sure the Spurs are as well."
Leonard indeed was aggressive offensively in the first half as he scored 13 of his 17 first half points alone in the second quarter. Whether it was going and getting out in transition, playing in the post, or shooting jump shots off side-step-dribbles, there was little the Magic defense could do to slow Leonard down.
Once I concluded my interviews with the Magic, I headed back to the Spurs locker room where I caught Leonard just before he left for a quick question.
I told him about what Vaughn said about Leonard playing with “ease,” Leonard kept his response quite simple in saying, it’s just basketball.
"It's just playing basketball,” said Leonard of looking comfortable out on the court as a focal point on offense. “I'm just out there just really practicing, getting ready for the season.”
“I'm really out there trying to learn, I'm taking each game as a practice to see if I can create a shot or things I can do and not do on defense."
Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich has already given his input on just how special Leonard can be in this league, and as a new season is about to begin, Leonard’s NBA peers are taking notice as well.