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Those looking the other way miss a lot with Spurs' Kawhi Leonard

Overlooked high school star who went to San Diego State ends up with one of NBA's most inconspicuous franchises. His three-point accuracy and development as a complete player make him hard to ignore.

May 21, 2013|By Ben Bolch, Los Angeles Times
  • San Antonio Spurs' Kawhi Leonard scored 18 points on 7-of-10 shooting in Game 1 against the Memphis Grizzlies.
San Antonio Spurs' Kawhi Leonard scored 18 points on 7-of-10 shooting… (Ronald Martinez / Getty…)

SAN ANTONIO — — Most San Antonio Spurs possessions start with Kawhi Leonard setting up in the corner.

It's good strategy for a small forward whose career three-point accuracy in the playoffs is better than that of Ray Allen, Stephen Curry and Steve Nash.

It's also symbolic of his basketball career.

You see, it feels as if everyone puts Kawhi in the corner.

He was the overlooked star at Riverside King High who went to San Diego State while less talented players in his area went to UCLA. After two standout seasons in college, he was largely ignored again, selected No. 15 in the 2011 NBA draft after some believed he would go in the top 10.

The Spurs acquired Leonard in a draft-day deal, which seemed fitting considering that for all their success, they remain one of the league's most inconspicuous franchises.

But it's hard to stay in the shadows when you continually knock down shots on national television.

Leonard scored 18 points while making four of five three-point shots Sunday during San Antonio's 105-83 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies in the opener of the Western Conference finals. Game 2 is Tuesday at AT&T Center.

Pegged by some scouts as having limited upside as a defender and rebounder, Leonard has become a complete player in only his second NBA season. He is the Spurs' third-leading scorer in the playoffs, averaging 14.1 points per game, while leading his team in minutes (37) and three-point accuracy (.429) among players who have taken more than 20 shots.

"One never knows what the upper limit for a player might be," San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich said Monday, "but he's improved steadily since he's gotten here. He's a hard worker and he wants to be a really good player."

Leonard's statistics experienced an uptick in the regular season in almost every category, except games played after a quadriceps injury sidelined him for a month. He averaged 11.9 points, 6.0 rebounds, 1.7 steals and 1.6 assists while shooting 49.4% and starting 57 of 58 games. He made 37.4% of his three-pointers compared with 37.6% during his rookie season, a statistical push.

Leonard, 21, credited his teammates and coaches with nurturing him despite some ragged moments early on.

"It's just teaching me and being patient with me," he said, "and helping me grow as a player and telling me what to do on the floor and just what to expect."

Leonard struggled at times as a rookie, acknowledging he didn't always know his team's plays amid a condensed schedule in a lockout-shortened season that included limited practices. He also had difficulty last spring defending Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant in the conference finals, though there's hardly any shame in that, given Durant's scoring prowess.

These playoffs have brought an eclectic range of defensive assignments. Among others, Leonard has guarded the Lakers' Andrew Goudelock and Pau Gasol, Golden State's Curry and Klay Thompson and Memphis' Tayshaun Prince. Prince was a non-factor in Game 1 of the conference finals with six points on two-for-five shooting.

Leonard has become a featured part of the Spurs' offense. He has made 44.1% of his three-pointers in 25 career playoff games, better than the marks of Allen (40.1%), Curry (39.6%) and Nash (40.6%).

Popovich, never prone to exaggeration, made what amounted to a bold proclamation last summer when he said he expected Leonard to be "the face of the Spurs" after the core of Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili departs.

"I think that's what they're building for," Parker said. "After Timmy, Manu and me, there's definitely going to be Kawhi."

Leonard seemed almost embarrassed when reminded of Popovich's statement.

"It just feels like my hard work has paid off," Leonard said. "But I don't think about it right now. I just think about what's going on with the team right now and what role I have to play and if everything works out, maybe I will be one day."

In the meantime, you can find Leonard in the corner, making the shots that allow him to live the dream.

ben.bolch@latimes.com

twitter.com/latbbolch

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