SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Kawhi Leonard tends to shrug off all the accolades for his defensive prowess. He will almost always credit his teammates and coach for any praise he receives.
It was no different Monday as Leonard won his second straight NBA Defensive Player of the Year award after helping the San Antonio Spurs have the league’s best defense.
“I just hide behind (his teammates) in the game, really,” Leonard said. “They give me the confidence to pressure my man and get into the ball handler. The bigs are there on the help side if the guy goes by me and I’m able to switch to other offensive players and all the other guards on my team to guard the best offensive player.”
Except coach Gregg Popovich isn’t so sure about all of that.
“He’s a team-oriented individual for sure,” Popovich said. “But I’ve got to tell you, I don’t think he knows when those guys are back there or not, he just goes and does what he does. He just plays. He’s giving credit to everyone as he should, he’s a wonderful young man, but the things he does amaze me night after night and the fact he does it at both ends really is something and then he rebounds on top of it. So, he’s a pretty special guy.”
Leonard beat out Draymond Green in voting Monday to become the first noncenter to win the award in consecutive seasons since Dennis Rodman in 1989-90 and 1990-91.
The 6-foot-7 Leonard received 84 first-place votes and 547 points from a panel of 130 sports writers and broadcasters throughout the U.S. and Canada. Green, the All-Star forward for Golden State, was runner-up for the second straight year with 44 first-place votes and 421 points. Miami center Hassan Whiteside was third with 83 points and two first-place votes.
The Spurs were a franchise-record 67-15 this season and allowed a league-low 92.9 points per game. Leonard was 12th in the league in steals and averaged a career-best 0.99 blocks. He was just as smothering in the 106-74 win over the Grizzlies to open the playoffs over the weekend.
“He’s just aggressive,” Memphis veteran Vince Carter said as the Grizzlies prepared for Game 2 on Tuesday night. “He’s in passing lanes, he has great on-ball instincts, great hands and he blocks shots very well at his position as well. So, even if he gets beat, he can recover. He has very long arms. He’s just relentless, and he really gets their defense started.”
The Spurs drafted Leonard out of San Diego State in 2011 with the intent of having him fill the defensive void on the wing they had lacked since the retirement of Bruce Bowen in 2009. Leonard quickly became the team’s primary defensive stalwart. He also took on a larger role offensively this season, averaging a career-high 21.2 points during the regular season.
He prepared for the added workload in the offseason after Popovich and the Spurs’ Big Three of Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili told Leonard that he and LaMarcus Aldridge would be the team’s main stars.
“You’ve got the strength and conditioning coaches here that know how to prolong your body throughout the season,” Leonard said. “You know what you need to do to have that energy each and every game. It just comes from within and just your preparation.”