What drives Kawhi Leonard?
What makes him tick?
What pushes him beyond the limits of mere mortals on the basketball court?
At Martin Luther King High School in Riverside, California, Leonard’s high school coach, Tim Sweeney, noticed that he had an unflappable demeanor.
“Things don’t faze him. He never gets excited. He never loses control,” Sweeney told The Canadian Press earlier this month.
Leonard, now starring for the Toronto Raptors, who have advanced to the NBA Finals for the first time in team history, transferred to King High before his junior year.
And he made quite an impression on the first day at the school.
Here is Sweeney’s recollection of that day:
“Kawhi’s first day here at King, we rolled the balls out and just let him play a little pickup. I already knew I had a loaded team, I knew we were going to be very, very good.”
On that day, Sweeney reached his father, a legendary high school coach, on the telephone to share the news that his team had a once-in-a-lifetime player. Tim Sr. paid a visit to the King High gym to see for himself.
“I said, ‘You’ve got to come down here because we have an NBA player in our midst,’ and he came down and he said, ‘Yup, I agree 100 percent.’ I told some fellow coaches, friends, they all thought I was crazy,” Sweeney recalled.
“And it wasn’t just the athleticism, but what he was doing on the floor. The greatest of the great players see the game different from everybody else. It’s such a reaction game, they see it and react quicker, and do things others aren’t capable of doing.”
What other poignant thoughts did Sweeney have about Kawhi?
”He’s a student of the game,” the former coach told The Canadian Press. “He studied Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and usually every summer he singled in on a couple moves from different players and worked on them so relentlessly as well as his other ones that they became reactionary in a game, which is very hard to do.”
As well as anyone, Sweeney recognized Leonard’s fierce competitive drive. He said that Leonard, who attended San Diego State, would take it personally when facing college teams that didn’t recruit him, according to the Los Angeles Times.
“They better hope they don’t play him,” Sweeney said in 2009.
Other coaches’ perspectives
Raptors bench boss Nick Nurse, in his first season at the helm, praises Leonard for his competitive drive.
“All he talks about is winning, and it’s been that way since I met him,” Nurse told Marc Stein of The New York Times.
And how did Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers describe Kawhi?
”He’s the most like Jordan that we’ve seen,” Rivers told The Times.
The Raptors’ transformation from a very good team to a title contender once again confirms Kawhi Leonard’s greatness.
Before the NBA Finals, Warriors veteran guard Shaun Livingston insisted that it “looks like the trade worked out for them,” according to The New York Times.
Golden State superstar Stephen Curry summed up Leonard this way in comments that also appeared in Stein’s column: “He plays the game at his own pace really well.”
In Kawhi’s own words
Kawhi Leonard’s no nonsense approach to the game keeps him locked in from start to finish. His singular focus on making plays that produce wins is difficult to emulate.
Speaking before a large throng of reporters on Wednesday in Toronto, Leonard was asked if he could compare himself to Golden State’s Draymond Green on defense. He was also pressed to give some insights about what makes him such an impressive defensive player.
“I don’t know how to just compare myself against him. I don’t really do that,” Leonard told reporters. “Just for myself and what I bring to the game, I guess we both can switch one through four, one through five on the floor. Both bring energy to the game. We want to play defense. We want to stop the player in front of us. And that’s pretty much it. He’s leading them on that end of the floor as well.”
Based on his defensive instincts and proven ability to shut down the opposition, a reporter also asked Leonard if his defensive smarts help him out as an offensive player at any given time.
His response: “Not really. I never really thought of it that way, but maybe. There are good offensive players that are not good defensive players and there are (some) the other way around — good defense, not offense. So I think it just really comes to being smart and just being in those situations before and just knowing what’s going to happen, going through years of playing and seeing defensive schemes or offensive schemes and watching film and seeing how they guarded other guys or me in the past.”
Another question pinpointed the essence of who Leonard has been during his NBA career.
“Does it bother you that you don’t have as much notoriety as some other guys? he was asked.
“No, I’m not playing the game for that reason,” the 2014 NBA Finals MVP said. “I’m playing to have fun and try to be the best player I can be. I’m happy with myself and what I’ve done in my career, and I’m just going to keep on from there. It’s not about me being famous or want to have more fame than those guys (like LeBron James and Stephen Curry).”