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James Borrego on Kawhi Leonard’s development since Spurs: ‘Nobody saw this coming’

James Borrego, Kawhi Leonard, Clippers, Spurs, Hornets

LOS ANGELES – Kawhi Leonard’s opening week with the L.A. Clippers has been nothing short of sensational from an individual standpoint. The two-time NBA Finals MVP has amassed 27 points, 6.5 rebounds, 7.5 assists, 1.8 steals, and 1.3 blocks per game in four games with his new team, leading them to a 3-1 record. Leonard has developed tremendously since his San Antonio Spurs days, which feel like a decade ago with all the movement that’s gone on in the league since.

Charlotte Hornets coach James Borrego was a significant part of Gregg Popovich’s coaching staff in San Antonio from the 2015 until 2018. On Monday night, he got his first crack at Leonard and his new team in the Clippers. This time, however, he was facing the best and most complete version of Leonard to date.

Everyone knows about Leonard’s offensive prowess and his lockdown defense, but Leonard tied his career-high in assists with nine in the second game of the season against the Golden State Warriors. Two nights later, he broke his career-high in assists with 10 against the Phoenix Suns.

Hornets coach Borrego says he’s not at all surprised by Leonard’s development as a playmaker throughout the last few years.

“He’s grown in that area so much — as a playmaker,” admitted Borrego before Monday night’s contest. “Coming in, he was always a willing teammate, a willing passer, but the game has slowed down for him so much. I think he understands his reads, what the defense is giving him on a night-to-night basis right now. He’s drawing more coverages than ever right now, but he’s trying to play the right way, moving the ball. He did not have that early on in his career. It’s something he’s developed into. But now he’s seeing different defenses, he understands what the game is giving him, and now he’s moving the ball better than ever.”

Kawhi Leonard, James Borrego

Edward A. Ornelas / San Antonio Express-News

Borrego and Leonard spend three years together in San Antonio, the last of which was Leonard’s injury year that saw him lose trust in the Spurs organization and request to move in a different direction.

The second-year coach says he tries to pull what he’s learned from the Spurs’ development system and implement it into his young Hornets team.

“It starts with hard work. With Kawhi, the number one thing is putting in the time and the work, and he’s done that to his credit. In San Antonio, they do a great job in player development. It’s something that I took from San Antonio, we believe in.”

“Nobody saw this coming in Kawhi Leonard and it’s to his credit, how he’s put in the time, the effort, I think he’s been very coachable along the way and I think that’s one thing I point to my players: if you put the time in and you’re committed to our development program, you’re only gonna get better, and Kawhi’s a prime example of that.”

While Borrego credits’ Leonard’s work ethic and commitment to getting better, Kawhi says it’s only a matter of opportunity as well as seeing what his team needs in the moment.

“It’s just a different offense and a different type of team,” Leonard responded to Borrego’s comments about his development as a playmaker. ” The last two teams I played on had a dominant point guard with Tony Parker and then Kyle [Lowry]. They did a lot of our playmaking, but I feel like I have to step into that role right now and get our players open shots.”

It’s unclear if Leonard necessarily ‘needs’ to step into the playmaking role, but it’s certainly welcome. His current 7.5 assists per game average is easily the highest of his career, and the 30 assists in the first four games are 13 more than his previous high of 17 through four games back in the 2016-17 season.

According to NBA.com/Stats, Leonard’s favorite targets are Montrezl Harrell (eight assists to Harrell through four games) and Ivica Zubac as well as Landry Shamet (five assists to each through four games).

Kawhi Leonard, Ivica Zubac, Clippers

Noah Graham/ Getty Images

“I was fortunate to be a part of that group that was developing Kawhi in San Antonio and he would just come in and put his work in,” Borrego explained. “He didn’t say anything, and he just put the time in, the effort, the work, studied his craft, and if you do that day after day, year after year, summer after summer, you can become a special player in this league.

“It’s no coincidence that he’s become this and he obviously had the tools and the skillset, but it’s been the time, the work ethic that’s allowed him to get to where he’s at today.”

Again, it’s only been four games and the Clippers are still missing some key pieces in Paul George as well as Rodney McGruder, but Leonard is averaging career-highs in points, assists, and blocks while shooting 52 percent from the field. There’s no reason to believe this trend of an efficient, playmaking Leonard shouldn’t continue.

His biggest task so far this season will come this Wednesday night against the Utah Jazz and their juggernaut of a defensive team led by back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year winner Rudy Gobert. The Clippers and Jazz will tip off at 7 PM PST on ESPN.