Throughout his career, Kawhi Leonard has been known, as oxymoronic as it may sound, as the anonymous superstar.
He has been touted as the best two-way player in the NBA during his time with the San Antonio Spurs, one of the few franchises in the league that operate in obscure excellence.
One controversy, injury filled season later and now he went from being one of the best basketball players in the country to being the new face of basketball in Canada.
The one major knock on Leonard was that he would never talk or not nearly as much as everyone else in the NBA. Up until this season he didn’t really have to. The go-to guys for local and national media in San Antonio were Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, LaMarcus Aldridge, and even Paul Gasol. Despite his elite status as a two-time Defensive Player of the Year with an NBA Finals MVP under his belt, Leonard has been like the basketball version of the Amish. People can say whatever they want about him with no repercussion.
But now in Toronto, he has to talk. Before this season it was the duo of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan leading the Raptors to relevance with each year starting with high hopes but ending face first into a buzzsaw. After the offseason trade, Leonard took DeRozan’s role and his words have begun to become noticeable. A biggest example was his first media appearance in Toronto and people heard him laugh for the first time. All while alleging that he’s, “a fun guy.”
If that was the tip, the most recent example is the iceberg. During the pregame media session before Saturday’s game at the Milwaukee Bucks, Spurs head coach Greg Popovich was asked about the importance of veteran point guard Patty Mills‘ leadership. Pretty much everyone from the Spurs’ last championship team has moved on, although Marco Belinelli came back after spending the last three seasons with four different teams, so the question about his leadership was legit.
Somehow it turned into a hot take about Leonard.
“Kawhi was a great player, but he wasn’t a leader or anything,” Popovich told reporters. “Manu and Patty were the leaders. Kawhi’s talent will always be missed, but that leadership wasn’t his deal at that time. That may come as he progresses, but Manu and Patty filled that role last year, and LaMarcus [Aldridge] came a long way in that regard also.”
Then the money response quote from Leonard comes in by way of the Toronto Star.
“I heard about it. It’s just funny to me because, you know, I don’t know if he’s talking about last year or not, but I guess when you stop playing they forget how you lead,” Leonard said in Toronto before “Other than that, it doesn’t matter. I’m here with the Raptors. My focus is on the season and not what’s going on the other side.”
There’s only two ways people have seen leadership being exhibited. There’s the extrovert leader like Kevin Garnett or [insert football player here] who is the outwardly vocal type that toes the fine line between inspiring and compensating. Then there’s the introvert leader who doesn’t talk much but provides an example of how things are done the right way that it makes the rest of the team better in the long run.
It’s obvious which kind Leonard says he is.
“I lead by example coming into practice every day. Just going hard and coming into these games mentally focused,” he told reporters before Sunday’s game against the Miami Heat. “You can’t see things once you’re playing on the floor. Guys ask me questions about their matchup or if I see something on the floor, I’m telling guys, ‘Go here, go there,’ just motivating people, do you know what I mean? I’m just trying to lift people’s spirits up, that’s about it. Don’t try to get anybody too down, just lift them up.”
When Tim Duncan retired after the 2016 playoffs, all eyes were supposed to be on Leonard. LaMarcus Aldridge was supposed to take much of the star load and led Leonard as the secret superstar.
However, an injury sustained during the 2017 playoffs by a dirty play by Golden State Warriors center Zaza Pachulia also knocked him out for all but nine games the year after. The longer he was out, the further he fall out of San Antonio and led to him eventually wanting out and forcing the trade that put him front and center with the Eastern Conference frontrunners.
Leonard currently leads the Raptors with 24.7 points per game while also averaging 8.5 rebounds. Danny Green, who came to Toronto with Leonard as part of the trade, eluded to the Toronto Star that Leonard is becoming more vocal now and less of the basketball playing mime that we’re all used to.
“Different system, new identity,” Green said. “He’s older here. There’s a lot of young guys who look up to him, respect him.”