Ailene Voisin

Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard proves NBA draft is about a player, not a number

San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard (2) was having a dominant game Sunday against the Golden State Warriors until leaving with an injury in the third quarter. He’ll likely miss Game 2 of the Western Conference finals.
San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard (2) was having a dominant game Sunday against the Golden State Warriors until leaving with an injury in the third quarter. He’ll likely miss Game 2 of the Western Conference finals. Getty Images via The Associated Press

The Kings are anxiously awaiting the outcome of Tuesday’s NBA draft lottery. Of course they are. No matter how hard they practice at perfecting the annual event that determines the order of player selection – and let’s just say, the Kings have spent a lot of time in the gym these past several years – the ball is the hands of a prominent New York accounting firm.

One pick or two. But you want the picks. Kings general manager Vlade Divac should sweat less about the order of selection than retaining both assets and then making smart choices. It’s all about who you choose, not where you choose.

Just think about Kawhi Leonard and the draft-day heist by San Antonio six years ago. Only six years ago. Though the Spurs forward re-injured his left ankle Sunday and figures to be physically diminished even if he returns in the conference finals against the ultra-talented Golden State Warriors, his performance in the opener spilled hot coffee all over the pre-draft analysis process.

The San Diego State sophomore was the best player in the building until he tweaked the ankle twice in the third quarter. Yet prior to the 2011 NBA draft, almost half of the league’s 30 scouting departments shot airballs in his direction. Leonard slipped all the way to No. 15 before Indiana’s Larry Bird selected him and promptly traded his rights to the Spurs for veteran point guard George Hill.

At least the Pacers received George Hill. Prospects selected ahead of the Spurs’ MVP candidate include Derrick Williams, Enes Kanter, Jonas Valanciunas, Jan Vesely, Bismack Biyombo, Brandon Knight, Jimmer Fredette, Alec Burks and twins Markieff and Marcus Morris. Making the process even more of a head-scratcher is the fact so many of the pre-draft scouting reports looked so hard at the underwhelming raw data they missed the essence of the player.

In a duel between Leonard’s imposing physical tools – a powerful 6-foot-7 frame, long wingspan and enormous hands – and his fundamental skills, more attention was given to the latter. His outside shooting, ball-handling and ability to create plays for his teammates all were considered suspect.

“His profile strongly indicates that he’s destined to play a complementary role in the NBA,” the highly-regarded Draft Express website wrote at the time, “especially in his first few seasons.”

While no one can argue that Leonard benefited immensely from the presence of future Hall of Famer teammates Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, and that he fit nicely with the slow-paced offense that accommodated the Spurs’ advancing age, Leonard took the fast track to stardom. He was the Most Valuable Player of the NBA Finals in his third season and the Defensive Player of the Year the next season. And after that? Today?

LeBron James. Kevin Durant. Stephen Curry. Russell Westbrook. James Harden. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is one of many league executives who rank James and Leonard as the game’s top two players – in no particular order. All of which explains why Popovich, who has nurtured his quiet superstar into an excellent outside shooter, ballhandler and playmaker, erupted Monday when asked about Zaza Pachulia’s defense during the injury-causing sequence.

After elevating for a corner jumper, Leonard landed on Pachulia’s foot, then tumbled into the Spurs bench. “This is crap,” Popovich told reporters after practice. “The two-step lead with your foot closeout is not appropriate. It’s dangerous, it’s unsportsmanlike. And this particular individual has a history with that kind of action.”

Leonard, not surprisingly, refused to join the chorus. He is a soft-spoken man of few words, either in praise or in criticism. His stoic on-court demeanor probably also contributed to his low draft projection, though former Aztec coach Steve Fisher and former New Jersey Nets and Clippers coach Don Casey, a staff consultant during Leonard’s two seasons at San Diego State, remain mystified – and a little miffed – by their former star’s low pre-draft standing.

“Kawhi shot infrequently from outside because he didn’t need to,” Casey said. “He was a scorer/shooter, like Elgin (Baylor). If he decided to go right, he went right. He also had a short game, a little floater here, a little floater there. But when you want to know if a guy can shoot, you look at his form on the foul line. His was close to textbook. You look at him on stand-still shots from the corner. Again, textbook.

“Now, coming off picks, with a quick shot and release? Those he needed to be taught. Pop and his staff have done a great job teaching him to catch and shoot without having to gather himself, giving him confidence. ‘You can hit the corner 3, now move back to foul line extended.’ I don’t think there’s a spot on the floor he can’t shoot from now. And defensively, well, he doesn’t have hands, he has paws. It’s like he has a sticky substance on his hands. Once he gets the ball, it’s his.”

Casey, who was a Boston Celtics assistant during Bird’s final seasons, often reminisces with the recently-retired Fisher and is acutely disappointed about Leonard’s physical setback – and the dim prospects for a prolonged, entertaining series.

“Kawhi was on pace for one of the better nights in history,” Casey added. “I mean, all phases. There are stars and there are stars. That dunk, he was saying, ‘I’m here. We’re here.’ 

No, but at least they don’t make repeat appearances at the lottery. The Kings are hoping to get lucky Tuesday, but more importantly, they need to be ready and to be good on draft day.

Ailene Voisin: 916-321-1208, @ailene_voisin