Kawhi Leonard didn’t begin his sophomore season at San Diego State with the intention of leaving for the NBA, but as the team shot up the rankings, his draft stock gradually rose to the point that he’ll likely be a lottery pick on June 23.
Leonard wasn’t highly rated coming out of high school and didn’t start seriously considering the league until his coach, Steve Fisher, told him could he a late first-rounder earlier in the season. Despite a poor showing during the NBA combine -- where he had an average 32-inch maximum vertical, bench pressed 185 pounds just three times and timed lower than big man Enes Kanter in the agility drill -- the 6-foot-7 swingman is still considered one of the better athletes in the draft.
He has mammoth hands, a freakishly long wingspan (7-3), plays with high energy and has a hunger to rebound and play defense. “I like to get after it on the defensive end,” said Leonard, who averaged a double-double with 15.5 points and 10.6 rebounds. “If my opponent isn’t scoring, then we’re going to win the game. I take a lot of pride in trying to shave points off a players’ average or make sure he doesn’t have a good shooting night.”
Leonard said his unique first name – which has the same pronunciation as the Hawaiian island Kauai (kuh-why) -- doesn’t carry any special meaning, since his parents “told me they made it up out of the top of their head.” He credits his late father, Mark, for providing the motivation for his basketball career. Mark Leonard was 43 when he was gunned down at a car wash three years ago, but his son still played the next night.
“My dad leaving my life. That’s the biggest thing that happened to me,” said Leonard, a native of Riverside, Calif. “I just remember what he tells me, the memories and try to move on forward each day, knowing that he’s still here, looking down on me.”
Leonard is one of 30 potential draft prospects -- including Maryland sophomore Jordan Williams – training in Las Vegas with Joe Abunassar at Impact Basketball. He has been working hard on improving his ballhandling and his jumper by finding the proper balance on his release and landing. “I want to do a lot of things on the court. I just want to be a complete basketball player. Dribble, pass, shoot, be a leader, play defense, block shots, steals. I’m trying to do it all,” Leonard said. “I think my comparison would be like to one of the throwback type of players. James Worthy, versatile, could do a lot of stuff on the court.”
And, while he is still considered a tweener, Leonard his rapid ascension since declaring for the draft has only pushed him to get better and go higher. “It’s not really overwhelming at all for me. If you’re working hard, good things are going to come from it. You just can’t get caught up in all the hype and what people say around you,” Leonard said. “I’m just out here working hard, trying to get picked. I want to be a high pick and a lot of hard work comes with that. I just want to be a player in the NBA.”