PHOENIX, AZ — Hoodie-d and in gray sweats, Kawhi Leonard blended into the crowd as he left the San Antonio dressing room around midnight Thursday.
It’s about the only anonymity he gets these days. The Spurs have the second-best record in the NBA and are riding a 12-game winning streak, and small forward Leonard has become their go-to guy.
The All-Star electorate confirmed earlier Thursday what coaches have known for years: that Leonard deserves to start an All-Star Game. He called it an honor to be chosen, and he responded with the kind of game that’s become his norm — 21 points, three rebounds, three assists and intimidating defense while playing less than half a game in the Spurs’ 117-89 victory over the Phoenix Suns.
Leonard built his reputation on defense — he’s one of the few players who can match up well against LeBron James, as the 2014 Finals showed — and that may never change.
“We’ll put him on a ‘2’ man or a ‘3’ man or put him on a point guard for a while, and they seem to fade,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said Thursday. “Like they stop being aggressive, in a sense. That’s what I notice. I don’t think they are afraid of him at all, but it affects their games where they don’t play their normal game. He has that effect on people.”
At the same time, Popovich has encouraged Leonard to explore and expand his offensive game this season. With ring-wearers Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili in the latter stages of their careers, the Spurs have begun to rely more on Leonard and newcomer LaMarcus Aldridge.
Leonard is averaging a team-high 20.1 points per game, a bump of almost four points a game from last year and the fourth straight season his scoring average has risen. He’s shooting 50.3 percent from the field and 48.4 percent from three-point range.
The increased focus has brought extra attention from his opponents, but as Leonard has become the we-can’t-let-him-beat-us guy, he’s thrived.
He and the Spurs credit a perhaps expected source, Charles Barkley.
As Leonard has grown from the best defensive player in the league into a premier force at both ends, Popovich used video of Barkley to help Leonard understand how to handle the double-teams he faces down low and the sagging defenses he sees on moves through the seams.
In his heyday, Barkley drew a double-team almost every time he touched the ball, but that didn’t prevent him from being the NBA MVP in 1993, when the Suns reached the NBA Finals.
“We’ve shown him film, a lot of Charles, as a matter of fact, just to get him to see what the possibilities are,” Popovich said. “Because Charles was basically the best ever at that when he would have the ball on the block.
“When to pass it. When not to pass it. How to bait people. How to take advantage of double-teams. How to get the ball to your teammates. All that sort of stuff, he was great at it, so Kawhi learned from that. From being in the situation. You can practice it all year, but it’s not the same.”
Leonard has watched and grown, learning patience can be an asset in attacking a scheming defense.
“Seeing how he was and how he wasn’t rushing to score, just really trying to set his teammates up,” Leonard said.
It’s not easy, “because you have a craving to scoring,” he added. But like so many players who defend well, Leonard gets it because he’s a team player first.
Popovich has pushed Leonard this year, and he drops the names of some of the NBA greats when he speaks about Leonard’s potential.
“We pretty much pound it into him that if you want to be special, if you want to be a Larry Bird, a Tim Duncan, a Kobe Bryant, a LeBron, those type of guys … most players don’t understand what that means to bring that night after night after night,” Popovich said.
“It’s a hell of a burden, a hell of a responsibility. You have to have a special character to understand that. He’s dealing with those mental aspects of the game now, too.”
Teammates see how Leonard has handled it to his point and see more to come.
“His game is exploding,” Ginobili said, reciting Leonard’s shooting percentages. “It’s multi-dimensional. Posting up. Attacking the seams. He’s learning. He has a lot of things to figure out. He has a bright future.”
Ginobili catches himself.
“Present. A bright present,” he continued. “If he keeps adding and developing, he’s going to be unbelievable.”