As the NBA’s quietest superstar, Kawhi Leonard is never going to be the one boasting about his talents or stating his MVP case vocally. Instead, he’ll simply make ridiculous plays on both ends of the court that make fans, opponents and even teammates shake their head in awe of his abilities as the league’s best two-way player.
Those abilities were never more apparent than on Monday night when he drilled a go-ahead three-pointer and then blocked a James Harden layup on back-to-back possessions to seal a Spurs win over the Rockets. That sequence immediately became Leonard’s signature moment of the season and thrust him into the public conscience when it comes to the stacked MVP race for the 2016-17 season.
How Leonard got to this point, from being the 15th overall pick in the 2011 Draft out of San Diego State where in his best season he shot 29.1 percent from three to being a two-time Defensive Player of the Year and a career 39 percent three-point shooter at the NBA level, is astounding.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has watched over Leonard’s development throughout his career, and recently told ESPN.com’s Michael C. Wright that Leonard’s mentality is what sets him apart from the majority of NBA players and makes him one of the league’s elite.
“He handles the responsibility well. Most importantly, he knows that things are not always going to be positive in the sense of win, lose, or make or miss a shot,” Popovich said. “And that’s what’s been very good about him, because some people don’t understand that, and they’re afraid to have that responsibility night after night after night. You think of Kobe [Bryant], you think of LeBron [James], you think of Michael [Jordan], and you think of all these guys that had to do that. They got to the point where they realized the shot wasn’t going to go down all the time, or they might even turn it over. But they come right back. They don’t shy away the next time. They want it again. Kawhi has that knack. He has that ability, and that’s important because very, very few people have that.”
It’s extremely high praise for Leonard, as you’re in good company any time you find yourself compared to the likes of Kobe, LeBron and Jordan. Popovich isn’t the only one that compares Leonard to the all-time greats, as Pelicans’ coach Alvin Gentry also brought up Jordan’s name when asked about Leonard by ESPN.com.
“He is a really unique player,” Gentry said. “You don’t want to say Michael Jordan, but it’s that type of situation, where you’ve got a really, really good offensive player and a tremendous defensive player. He impacts the game. There’s very few guys in this league that can impact the game on both ends of the floor like he can.”
Leonard’s impact on the defensive end of the floor is what makes his MVP case so unique. While Russell Westbrook and James Harden are having historic seasons with their offensive productivity, Leonard is averaging an impressive 26.3 points, 6.0 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game while also being fifth in steals per game (1.9), sixth in defensive win shares (3.7) and seventh in defensive rating (101.2).
Basically what I’m saying is, I don’t envy MVP voters this season, because there are three or four candidates with legitimate arguments.