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Spurs coach Gregg Popovich speaks on Kawhi Leonard’s development

Kawhi Leonard, Gregg Popovich, Clippers, Spurs

LOS ANGELES – Fresh off a shorthanded loss to the Utah Jazz, Kawhi Leonard returned to the L.A. Clippers lineup to take on the San Antonio Spurs on Thursday night. Leonard, who sat out Wednesday night’s game due to load management, faced off against his former team and former Hall-of-Fame head coach in Gregg Popovich.

Leonard’s exit from the Spurs was notoriously on bad terms, as reports cited break of trust as the reason the now-two time Finals MVP wanted out of San Antonio in the first place. Regardless of the way it ended, both sides still seem to respect one another.

The two had a tremendous seven-year run from 2011 to 2018. It included two NBA Finals appearances and an NBA Championship in 2014 at the expense of LeBron James and the Miami Heat. Popovich, however, says he doesn’t really have a favorite moment with Leonard.

“Kawhi’s pretty steady,” stated Popovich. “He’s not a big talker. He doesn’t try to find the limelight or anything like that. He’s just a good guy who wanted to be good. In putting the time in, there wasn’t one moment where you’d say, ‘Wow!’ When he first came in, you saw his work ethic and you look at his physical skills that he has. His length, his hands, his size, his strength.”

Leonard came into the NBA out of San Diego State as the team’s leading scorer and as a lockdown defender, but had question marks about his ability to score and shoot at the professional level.

“When we we made that trade for him and drafted him, we didn’t know he was gonna be Kawhi Leonard just like we didn’t know Manu [Ginobili] was gonna be Manu when we drafted him at whatever, 57 or something like that,” Popovich added. “People who tell you that are full of crap.”

“You never know how a player is gonna develop and whether he’s drafted fourth or 19th, you just don’t know.”

In his rookie season, Leonard averaged just 7.9 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.1 assists, and 1.3 steals per game in just 24 minutes per game. The Spurs wanted him to focus on being the best defender he can possibly be. The team told him, as Popovich relayed, that the offense would come over time. And boy, did it.

In his third year in the league, Leonard took on the challenge of defending LeBron James in the NBA Finals and led the Spurs to an NBA Championship. Once the Big Three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili started to show their age, Leonard took the reigns as the team’s leader on offense in addition to the defensive end.

Joining the Raptors allowed him to show out and prove that he wasn’t a system player, as Brooklyn Nets’ star Kevin Durant hinted back in 2014.

Free agency allowed him to select the team of his choice, as well as a huge say in the roster he wanted around him.

“From day one, I hit him and said you need to be an All-NBA defender,” explained Popovich. “That’s your first goal. The offense will come, we’ll work on that as time goes by and we’ll see where it goes because we didn’t know where it was gonna go. But it was obvious that he could be a great defender, and he bought in and he did it right off the bat on the defensive end. Then slowly but surely, year after year after year, he got better and better at the offensive end to [the point where] in the last two, three, four years, he just felt very comfortable with the ball in pick and roll stuff.”

The 24-year Spurs coach did say, however, that he saw something like this coming from Kawhi after spending every day around him for seven years.

“How many years did we have him? We saw everything from the beginning. He grew from day one the entire time he was there. He grew into the Kawhi Leonard you see today. He did a lot of work. Our staff did a lot of work. He came a long way. He was fantastic.”

The one aspect of Leonard’s non-basketball skill that took time to grow was his leadership style, at least vocally. With Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili on the team, Leonard didn’t have to be the vocal leader. Now with the Clippers, teammates like Patrick Beverley and Ivica Zubac say Leonard is as much a vocal leader as he is an on-court play leader.

“When he talks, everybody stops and listens,” both Beverley and Zubac told ClutchPoints.

“He wasn’t a vocal leader [with the Spurs], that’s not who he was,” Popovich recalled. “Timmy wasn’t a vocal leader. Everybody leads in different ways. While he was there, Tim and Tony and Manu were there so those were the guys you kind of looked to while he was developing, but that was gonna be the next step for him. He started talking about leadership and that sort of thing. But he set an example at practice and in games every day.”

Leonard showed his former team how far he’s come along by lighting the Spurs up for 38 points, 12 rebounds, and four steals. He’s averaging 29.2 points, 7.6 rebounds, 6.2 assists, 2.2 steals, and one block in a shade under 30 minutes per game.