Commentary

The evolution of Kawhi Leonard

Originally Published: June 12, 2013
By Ramona Shelburne | ESPNLosAngeles.com

SAN ANTONIO -- It was buried near the bottom of a summertime question-and-answer session with Spurs fans after his rookie season, but like most things that come out of Gregg Popovich's mouth, Kawhi Leonard heard every word.

Popovich didn't just praise the rangy forward on his rookie season, he said he thought he'd be the "face of the Spurs" one day.

Popovich is actually way more complimentary of his players than his gruff sideline interviews might suggest, but this was a whopper.

Face of the Spurs?

No matter where that quote was published, it was getting back to Leonard.

"Yeah, I heard it," Leonard said after harassing LeBron James on the defensive end and scoring 14 points of his own on 6-for-10 shooting in the Spurs blowout 113-77 victory over Miami in Game 3 of the NBA Finals Tuesday night.

[+] EnlargeLeonard
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesIn addition to his 14 points, Kawhi Leonard helped hold LeBron James to 7-of-21 shooting Tuesday night.

"But it doesn't mean anything to me right now. I'm a role player and we're competing for a championship this year. Whatever unfolds in the years to come is what happens."

By now, Leonard is used to saying he's a role player. It's what Spurs do. Their roles are set, they do not question them, they accept them gladly.

Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are the stars of this franchise. The Spurs universe revolves around the three players who have carried them to sustained excellence for more than a decade.

But one thing is becoming pretty clear during these Finals: Leonard isn't going to be cast into a role like this for much longer. He's a big part of their present, but he's an even bigger part of their future.

And you know what? He wants it.

"That's why I play the game. I want to be great one day," Leonard said. "I work so hard just to get better. Hopefully the cards unfold right so I can be the face ...

He stops a moment before finishing the thought, remembering his place and how good Spurs talk and finishes with a much more selfless thought, which he actually means just as earnestly, "No, I don't even think about it like that [being the face of the Spurs]. Just being better as a player myself."

When they go well, that's how these stories all go.

An organization makes a bet on a player with a high ceiling like Leonard, he turns out to have the work ethic, attitude and ability to live up to it and eventually he busts out on a stage like this and the future becomes now.

"Some guys are affected by the lights and some guys aren't," Popovich said of Leonard. "We haven't done anything to make him the way he is; he already is like that. He's quiet, he's humble, he wants to be a great player and he works before and after practice every day.

"So what you're seeing out there [in the Finals] is just a part of his personality. He just comes to play."

During these Finals he's been making James' life difficult. Yes, it's the Spurs' team defense that's forced James to pass far more than he should be. But it's Leonard who has been doing the heavy lifting.

"Honestly, I don't think I'm doing that good of a job on him," Leonard said. "He's still making baskets in a row when he's being aggressive. When I'm in the game, I'm just trying to contest all his shots, not give him anything easy because he's going to make shots.

"I just buy into my team. Whatever the coaches tell me the player does, I trust them and play the game."

A very Spursian answer.

So, too, has been his play.

But it's not just at the defensive end where he's contributed in these Finals. After his 14 points, 12 rebounds and four steals in Tuesday's win, Leonard is averaging 11 points, 12 rebounds and two steals during these Finals.

Those aren't role player statistics.

"I am," Leonard said when asked if he still saw himself as a role player. "I'm not getting no plays called for me out on the floor. I'm not getting no isos. So I'm a role player. I'm playing off of Tim, Tony and Manu, the players [that] get isos.

"I'm just going out there playing."

True. The Spurs still belong to Duncan, Parker and Ginobili. But here's guessing Leonard's time isn't too far off.