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HIGH SCHOOL BASKETBALL

Player of the year: Kawhi Leonard, Riverside King

Leonard played everywhere and did everything for the Wolves, who gained respect by ending Mater Dei's perfect season.

March 29, 2009|Ben Bolch

Kawhi Leonard says his first name, bestowed by his late father, holds no special significance in terms of meaning.

To his coach, Kawhi (pronounced like the Hawaiian island of Kauai) simply means, "the best."

"I have not seen a better basketball player," Riverside King High Coach Tim Sweeney Jr. said.

To his teammates, the name means "provider."

"He brings everything we need and everything we don't have," senior guard Steven Mallory said.

To his opponents, it means "uh-oh."

"We couldn't guard him," Woodland Hills Taft Coach Derrick Taylor said.

There's certainly something exceptional about a 6-foot-7 senior forward who can play all five positions and lead fastbreaks after outmuscling taller opponents for rebounds.

As impressive as Leonard's statistics were -- he scored 38 points during a victory over Huntington Beach Ocean View and had six games in which he had at least 20 points and 20 rebounds -- the numbers are only a fraction of what made him The Times' player of the year.

"He's definitely the most versatile player I've ever had," said Sweeney, who has been coaching for 28 years. "Offensively, he is unstoppable. He can take you inside or outside and he's got a full array of moves. Defensively, he can guard wing players to guys 6-10, 6-11."

He also had a knack for coming up big at the right time. Leonard snagged 20 rebounds -- eight more than 6-10 twins David and Travis Wear combined -- during King's 71-56 victory over then-top-ranked Santa Ana Mater Dei in the Southern Section Division I-AA championship.

Leonard was the driving force behind the Wolves' title in arguably the most stacked division in section history, with Compton Dominguez, Etiwanda and Moreno Valley Rancho Verde in addition to King and Mater Dei. The Monarchs were undefeated and widely considered the top team in the nation before losing to King.

The Wolves fell short of a trip to Sacramento after losing to eventual state Division I champion Westchester in the Southern California regional title game, but that could not diminish a season in which Leonard averaged 22.6 points, 13.1 rebounds and 3.4 assists.

Still, the snubs persisted until the season's final weeks.

King was unranked by some national polls before beating Mater Dei, and Leonard was not among the four Southland players selected as McDonald's All-Americans.

"I like being the underdog so they don't expect what's going to happen," he said. "It pushes me to work harder and do the things I'm not doing better."

When things got tough, Leonard could also draw inspiration from the tattoo tribute to his father on his right biceps. Mark Leonard was fatally shot in January 2008 at the carwash he operated in Compton. Det. Frank Salerno of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department said there's a good chance the case will go unsolved because of lack of cooperation among potential witnesses.

Kawhi said he carried with him the lessons his father instilled, such as the importance of completing classwork and getting to college.

"It's been hard," Leonard said. "I'm trying to remember all the things he said."

The son must have been paying attention. In the fall, he'll enroll at San Diego State, where Kawhi will take on another meaning.

"He's the steal of high school basketball for San Diego State," Sweeney said.

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ben.bolch@latimes.com

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