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HIGH SCHOOL BASKETBALL

Kawhi Leonard figures to be quite a find

The 6-foot-7 senior from Riverside King is among the area's best basketball players but didn't get the big offers. He will attend San Diego State.

March 07, 2009|Ben Bolch

Among the array of McDonald's All-Americans and players bound for North Carolina, UCLA and USC on the floor tonight at the Honda Center will be a dynamic power forward with a 7-footer's wingspan.

For years he has shown he can play all five positions. He is a tenacious rebounder who can handle the ball like someone a foot shorter. He can make three-point baskets as if they're no more challenging than a layup.

Kawhi Leonard could very well be the most dazzling player on the court when his Riverside King High boys' basketball team plays undefeated Santa Ana Mater Dei and its more ballyhooed collection of players in the Southern Section Division I-AA championship.

But when the 6-foot-7 senior heads to college in a few months, it might feel to some as if he went poof! and disappeared.

Don't bother looking for him in the Pacific 10 Conference or scouring the rosters of the usual suspects from the Atlantic Coast, Big 12, Big Ten or Southeastern conferences to see if that's where he ended up.

He'll be at San Diego State.

The Aztecs aren't exactly Austin Peay or Lipscomb on the obscurity meter, but they're also not usually a destination for high-end prospects.

"We felt he was good enough to be recruited by anybody," San Diego State Coach Steve Fisher said. "We feel we got a really good player."

King Coach Tim Sweeney Jr. said the major conference schools that passed on Leonard should hope for one thing while he's with the Aztecs.

"They better hope they don't play him," Sweeney said.

The coach quickly dismissed all the usual notions as to why schools including UCLA, USC, Arizona State and California displayed only mild interest in a player whom he labeled the best in his 28 years in coaching.

Bad grades? Not an issue.

Bad kid? No way.

The only negatives Sweeney heard were some vague rumblings about a poor work ethic. But the coach noted that often after practice, Leonard goes to a local gym to hone his shooting touch.

"That's the kind of kid he is," Sweeney said.

Greg Hicks, a West Coast recruiting analyst for Scout.com, said some schools viewed Leonard as an undersized power forward and had reservations about whether a so-called 'tweener could play the four at the college level.

"Those guys who are in between the three and four are where you see a lot of mistakes because the positions are so different," Hicks said. "Either you can or can't guard the four at that level."

Sweeney insisted that Leonard plays bigger than his size.

"Inside with his reach, he's much like a 6-9, 6-10, 6-11 player," Sweeney said. "You see very few 6-7 guys who can get rebounds and just go right up and dunk on you."

Hicks said Leonard might have been able to secure a spot at a basketball power by waiting until the end of a senior season in which he is averaging 20.5 points, 12.1 rebounds and shooting 60% from the field to make his college choice.

For his part, Leonard said he's comfortable with his decision to sign with the Aztecs alongside Hemet West Valley senior guard Eric Lawton, a cousin and close friend.

"Everyone said, 'Why didn't you go to a bigger school, why didn't you go to the Pac-10?' " Leonard said. "If I waited it out, I probably would have got them. But I wanted to go with who loved me first."

After the summer basketball circuit ended, Leonard said, Aztecs coaches were "the only ones calling a lot, every day. I thought they loved me. I wanted to come to a school where the coaches loved me already and let me play my game."

Sweeney will be happy to let Leonard unleash his aggressive style against top-seeded Mater Dei (30-0), which defeated King, 64-57, when the teams last met in December 2007. The Monarchs present another reminder of a perceived snub in that they feature 6-10 twins Travis and David Wear, who were both selected as McDonald's All-Americans; Leonard was not selected.

But there's little debate as to where Leonard ranks among the elite players in Southern California.

Woodland Hills Taft Coach Derrick Taylor called Leonard "as good as anyone we played last year" before adding that "he's much better now."

Leonard scored 22 points last March to help propel the Wolves to an 83-82 overtime victory over the top-seeded Toreadors.

"Every time we did something, he always had an answer," Taylor said.

It could be the same story for the colleges who bypassed the future Aztec.

"He is going to show them," King guard Steven Mallory said. "Nothing but great things will come out of him."

--

ben.bolch@latimes.com

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