SAN ANTONIO (AP) — On a team that prides itself on humility, efficiency and selflessness, Kawhi Leonard is the most Spur-like of them all.
Tim Duncan’s stoicism has been spoofed in commercials and memes, but Leonard makes the veteran seem positively animated in comparison. A big dunk or key play? Leonard might give a small fist pump, maybe a slight clap of his hands.
“It’s very rare for him,” guard Tony Parker said, “even less than Timmy.”
The soft-spoken Leonard is a lot like Duncan on the court, too, quietly putting together a season that has him in the early MVP discussion. The Spurs are right there near the top of the Western Conference standings, behind the defending champion Golden State Warriors, and the teams will play each other for the first time this season on Monday night in Oakland. Duncan will be out with soreness in his right knee, the Spurs said Sunday.
“He’s probably the best two-way player in the league now,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “You have to deal with him in all kinds of different ways. He’s a terror on defense. Offensively he’s gotten better and better. It’s kind of slowly but surely become his team in a lot of ways.”
If everyone else is excited about it, that will have to do. You won’t hear much buzz from Leonard. His focus is singular.
“Just wanting to win, really,” Leonard said. “That’s it. That’s all I think about.”
The 6-foot-7 forward is clearly the best player on a team with a trio of future Hall of Famers in Duncan, Parker and Manu Ginobili, and the offseason’s biggest free-agent acquisition in LaMarcus Aldridge. The Spurs were hopeful, if uncertain of Leonard’s potential when they traded away team favorite George Hill to Indiana in 2011 for the dynamic, raw talent out of San Diego State. Leonard has rewarded San Antonio’s forward thinking by meticulously becoming one of the game’s elite players, staying late and coming early to hone his game.
“He’s a young player and he’s just trying to be the best basketball player he can be,” San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said. “That encompasses playing both ends of the floor and everything that entails.”
It’s a drive that led Popovich to proclaim in 2012 that Leonard was “going to be a star” and “the face of the Spurs.” As usual, he was right.
“He looks phenomenal,” Lakers star Kobe Bryant said. “His game has grown leaps and bounds from when he first came in the league. He’s done nothing but continued to add. Three-point shot, pull-up shot, left, right, post game, handling the ball. He looks great.”
From stripping the sure-handed Stephen Curry of his dribble at midcourt last April to holding Indiana All-Star Paul George to a career-worst seven points last month, Leonard continues to prove himself an elite defender. A 7-3 wingspan helps, but there’s more to it.
“He’s tenacious,” Utah coach Quin Snyder said. “It starts with a level of pride and intensity. Physically, he is so long and strong I think that combination makes him really unique from a physical standpoint. But there are a lot of guys that have physical tools. It’s the fact that he takes pride in them and also within what they do.”
George called his matchup with Leonard “a game with a game” that he enjoys. Added LeBron James: “Kawhi has some of the best hands, he’s a great defender. I love going against him.”
Leonard’s defense is no surprise. He won Defensive Player of the Year last season. But he’s doing more on the offensive end, too — averaging career bests in scoring, rebounds and assists — all while guarding the team’s best perimeter player, regardless of size and position.
“His confidence is up there, obviously,” Duncan said. “He’s playing as well as anyone in this league right now and it shows. He knows what he can do and he’s confident in what he can do. You see it in every game out there. The shots he’s taking, the role he’s taking with the team and the way he’s leading.”
After signing a five-year, $90 million contract in July, Leonard was eager to leave, though not for a celebration or a shopping spree. Leonard was rushing to return to the court for the second of his three daily workouts in the offseason. The NBA Finals MVP trophy from 2014? On a table, collecting dust.
“It’s not my goal this year to be MVP,” he said. “I said I wanted to be a player that was on an MVP level. That’s not a goal of mine. I do want to be recognized as one of the best when I retire.”