Kawhi Leonard: The Future of the NBA

2014 NBA Finals - Game Four

This is Kawhi Leonard’s world. We’re just living in it.

In an NBA Finals that was supposed to be dominated by the Big Three, Tim Duncan’s potential farewell, Gregg Popovich’s in-game interviews and Pat Riley’s slicked back hair, there has been a runaway star in a player who seems to want to be anything but. Kawhi Leonard is the soft-spoken, three-pointer-making, slam-dunking phenom who is leading the San Antonio Spurs against the two-time defending champion Miami Heat.

The Spurs are built on the idea of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. And Kawhi has not deviated from that strategy. Instead, it’s his utter commitment to playing team ball that has lead to his emergence. While his dominance on the offensive end is what shows up best on the stat sheet (he’s averaging 24.5 PPG, 9 RPG, and 2.5 steals per game over his last two games), he has also been tasked with being the biggest pain-in-the-ass LeBron James has been seen. Over the last two games, James has averaged 25 PPG, 6.5 RPG, and 4.5 APG, which is an impressive line for most but somewhat pedestrian for the NBA’s best player. Plenty of LeBron haters would sight this as evidence of the King shrinking when the spotlight is brightest. That he lacks the “clutch gene.” I say this is instead a testament to Leonard rising to the occasion.

Oh, and he does things like this:

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But Leonard isn’t the breakout star of these playoffs simply because of his play on the court. Instead, it’s his actions off the court that have caught the attention of others, which is funny, because there isn’t much to talk about Leonard when it comes to life off the court.

All you need to know about Leonard and his personality can be discerned from this vine of Kawhi talking with ESPN’s Stuart Scott.

Leonard is not just humble or modest, or even shy or bashful. He might just be the most boring star the NBA has ever seen (or at least since teammate Tim Duncan), and that makes him the best. Seriously, even his last name, Leonard, is most synonymous with a character from The Big Bang Theory. Leonard couldn’t care less about the spotlight, self-promotion, or humoring reports like Stuart Scott. He doesn’t have time for silly questions about who he is; he’s too busy trying to win a championship. The other day on Twitter, ESPN college insider Jeff Goodman recounted his first interview with Kawhi, while he was still at San Diego State.

Initially, the Twitter-verse took this as a slight against Leonard, and Goodman later qualified his initial tweet.

Is there a better anecdote Coach Popovich wants on a prospect player’s resume than that? A coach who has made a career of curt responses to interview questions seems like the guy who is dying to someone players who couldn’t give a Flip Saunders about a microphone in his face. My favorite part of the story is the reason Leonard gave for being late to his meeting with Goodman.

That sums up Kawhi better than anything else. He needed to get a friend a license. He was concerned more about something practical than something superfluous. The interview could wait. He needed to help a friend.

It’s these humble stories that lead to most people labeling Kawhi as playing the game “the right way.” But I refuse to use this phrase because it implies that those who act differently are doing it wrong, and that’s certainly not the case. Plenty of guys in the NBA bring attention to themselves. Michael Jordan is one of the most beloved figures in the sport, and he was a “me first” guy. In fact, he made at least a billion dollars being a “me first” guy, through his empire of endorsement deals and staring as himself in Space Jam, where he saves the NBA. Sounds like someone has an ego.

You have guys like LeBron, who I wouldn’t call a “me first” guy, but who doesn’t shy way from the spotlight. Again, nothing wrong with that either. He’s an ambassador of the sport. Right now, he’s the most talented player in the league. He gets to star in cool commercials with Imagine Dragons playing in the background and play hoops with the FLOTUS. That’s baller. But that’s also not Kawhi.

Then you have your Kevin Durant, your more reserved superstar, but as eloquent as they come. Have you seen his MVP speech? This video will be a staple of team building exercises in corporate America for years to come. That is pure, selfless Durant. But can you image Kawhi Leonard giving a speech like that? When he inevitably wins his first MVP award, I imagine him accepting his award, saying a quick “Thank you” and then throwing the trophy in the trunk of his mid-sized sedan before heading back to practice.

Kawhi has taken humble a new level, never before seen in a league that’s marketed itself on individuals. But how will the league, and in turn actual brands, market Leonard to the world when it comes time? Imagine Kawhi signing a shoe deal. What do you think those kicks would look like? This is how I image them.

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The slogan would read, “You can have them in any color you like, so long as it is white.” I couldn’t picture them looking any other way. How do you design a shoe for a guy that’s all talent and no personality? You’d design something that’s functional, but with no flash. Because that’s Kawhi.

How the NBA and it’s fans will accept a superstar like Kawhi Leonard is unknown, but one thing is for certain. After these NBA Finals, you’ll never have to ask who that guy is, the one dunking over the league’s best rim protectors and defending your team’s best player. Kawhi Leonard will be, and should be, a household name, even if he doesn’t care to be. But incase you forget, asking who he is might just be the only question he’s willing to answer.

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