By Will Burgess ’22
Getting into the NBA is and will always be a challenge, and becoming a superstar is even harder. Kawhi Leonard was drafted by the Indiana Pacers during the 2011-2012 season, but he was ultimately traded to the San Antonio Spurs that year. During his rookie season he averaged 7.9 points and shot around 49% from the field.
The future champion steadily got better on both sides of the court and in time was rewarded for his hard work in 2014 against LeBron James and the Miami Heat in the finals. Leonard averaged 17.8 points during the series, with prime James guarding him on that side of the ball.
What people remember most however, is the great one on one defense he played on James to help his team win in five games. He had a total of 8 steals and 6 blocks during the series against the super team. The efforts of Leonard and the rest of the Spurs roster held the Heat to an average of 91.6 points a game and the Spurs won the chip that season; with Leonard winning the Finals MVP.
Everything was looking up for the young star as the seasons came and went. Though he was widely known for his defense, his role and game on the offensive side of the ball collective got better as well.
Everything took a turn however, when Leonard had a right quad injury during the 2017-2018 season. It wasn’t the actual injury that caused all the controversy, but when he was medically cleared to play by the medical staff in San Antonio.
According to CBS Sports, he pursued second opinions from specialists in New York City after the evaluation with the Spurs. Leonard also took advantage of the gymnasium in the NBA’s headquarters in nearby Manhattan for further therapy. During all this some of Leonard’s teammates came out publicly to speak on the matter.
A local San Antonio sportswriter tweeted the following quoting Tony Parker (teammate of Leonard) on March 23, 2018, “I’ve been through it. It was a rehab for me for eight months. Same kind of injury (as Kawhi), but mine was a hundred times worse. But the same kind of injury. You just stay positive.”
At the time the public’s opinion of Leonard switched because the Spurs organization has a world class reputation and things like this weren’t expected here. None the less Leonard did not play the majority of that season, and at the end of it was traded to the Toronto Raptors in exchange for Demar Derozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a first round pick.
Toronto is a whole new feel in all sorts of areas. For one: the weather. Growing up in Southern California, weather plays a factor in his comfortability to play in Toronto. On the better side of things, it’s a very diverse city, so people from all over the world are in one area. Most importantly, Canada has one basketball team, so not only is he representing a city, but a nation too.
Nevertheless, the season started, and basketball fans waited to see how this new Toronto team would do after getting swept by King James. Looking back at the season they had, Toronto did just as good as any other contending team in the league. The Raptors won 58 or about 71% of their games that season and with Leonard’s superstar talent, they landed the second seed in the Eastern Conference.
The “Kawhi Hype” going into the playoffs was heard everywhere. During the playoffs he averaged 30.5 points a game and joined the list of players to average 30 and above during the postseason (Jordan, O’Neal, Olajuwon).
To add to the “hype,” Leonard hit a four bounce game winner against Joel Embiid and the 76ers during game 7 that could’ve gone either way and could’ve changed history had it not fallen. The next test was the number one seed in the East: The Bucks. Thanks to Leonard’s excellent defense on the future MVP, they handled the Bucks in 6 games and the Raptors were on their way to the 2019 NBA Finals.
Last year’s Finals wasn’t like any other because it was the first time a foreign team played in it. To add to that, the defending champions, the Golden State Warriors, were looking to be added on the list of legendary teams that 3-peated (Bulls, Lakers, Celtics).
Knowing that the Hampton 5 were gonna come out with everything they had, and having a fan base the size of a nation watching, the pressure was on everyone on the Raptor’s roaster. Nevertheless, the show went on.
It was a hard fought series on both sides. Leonard and his Raptors had the momentum especially because of the Warrior injuries to Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson. It wasn’t until the final buzzer went off in game 6 at Oracle Arena that the Raptors, for the first time in team history, were NBA champions. All questions concerning Leonard’s ability to play the game and be a superstar in this league were erased by this historic post season.
Leonard’s journey as a player in this league is far from over. As of July 9th, Leonard went back home to southern Cali. to join the Los Angeles Clippers with the 6-time all-star, Paul George. The potential defensive efficiency on this team was described as scary when the announcement went out. The expectation for that team is nothing less than a championship right now and things couldn’t be looking too much better for the team. The management is there, the talent and dept is there, but so is the compilation.
Leonard is going to be facing many more challenges in the seasons to come, but he seems welcome the challenge.
Awards (2019): 3-time all-star, 2-time NBA Champ (2019, 2014), 5-time All Defensive, 2-time DPOY, 2 finals MVPS
Career Averages: 17.7ppg, 6.3rb, 2.4 assists, 49.5 FG%, 38.3FG3%, 84.8FT
2018-2019 Averages: 26.6ppg, 7.3rb, 3.3 assists, 49.6FG%, 37.1FG3%, 85.4FT
2018-2019 Playoffs Averages: 30.5ppg, 9.1rb, 3.9 assists, 49FG%, 37.9FG3%, 88.4FT