NBA 75 Series: #30 Kawhi Leonard by DJ Hamilton

    Coming in at #30 in my NBA 75 Greatest Players of All Time is a quiet, cumbrous assassin on both ends of the court that has made himself one of the greatest defenders of all time, and a offensive machine who is as clutch as they come, and that is, Kawhi Leonard. Leonard was born on June 29th, 1991, in Los Angeles, California to his mother Kim, and father Mark. Former NFL player, Steve Johnson is a cousin of Leonard’s. Leonard had to deal with a massive tragedy as a young teenager, having his father murdered in 2008 by unknown killers while he was at his car wash center.

He would attend Canyon Springs High School in Moreno, California, before he would eventually transfer to Martin Luther King High School for his junior year. As a senior, Leonard, as well as future NBA player, Tony Snell, would help lead the King Wolves to a 30-3 record while averaging 22.6 points, 13.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists, and 3 blocks per game. He would go on to be named California Mr. Basketball.

Leonard was never a highly-touted prospect, being just a four-star recruit coming out of high school, and ranked just No.48 nationally in the class of 2009. But, he would go on to play his college basketball for the San Diego State Aztecs, where in his freshman season he averaged 12.7 points and just a mere under 10 rebounds a game with 9.9. The Aztecs would finish with a 25-9 record that season where they would go on to win the Mountain West Conference (MWC) tournament title, with Leonard being named MVP.

He would boost up his production his sophomore season by averaging 15.7 points and 10.4 rebounds per game, helping the Aztecs improve from their 25-9 record the previous season to go 33-4 his sophomore campaign. Leonard helped them secure another tournament championship, while also leading the Aztecs to the Sweet 16, where they lost to the eventual champions, the UConn Huskies, led by Kemba Walker.

Leonard would be named a second team All-American that season, and would go on to enter the 2011 NBA Draft. Heading into the pre draft process, many scouts considered Leonard raw offensively, but they saw his physical gifts at 6-foot-7, huge hands, and a 7-foot-3 wingspan, along with being super strong. He would go on to be selected 15th overall in 2011 by the Indiana Pacers, but would be traded to the San Antonio Spurs that night for George Hill.

In his early years, Leonard earned his minutes under legendary Spurs coach Gregg Popovich due to his tenacious defense that was transcendent, especially for such a young player. Ultimately he would become known as ”The Klaw” because of those mits he has of hands.

Leonard has had quite the rise to stardom in the NBA since he arrived in 2011, starting off as a defensive specialist for the Spurs, to becoming one of the best mid-range assassins and two-way players to ever touch a basketball. He was a late bloomer offensively, as he didn’t average over 20 points per game until his fifth season in the league. But, his real coming out party might have been the 2014 NBA Finals where he won the Finals MVP and played tough defense on LeBron James, making each shot tough for him. 

He would continue to blossom as a player, making his first All-Star Game in 2016, and winning back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year Awards (2015, 2016). He’s one of eight players in history to win back-to-back DPOY awards, the others are Sidney Moncrief, Dennis Rodman, Hakeem Olajuwon, Ben Wallace, Dwight Howard, who’s the only one to ever win three straight, and Rudy Gobert. Leonard is one of two players to have won Finals MVP, All-Star Game MVP, and Defensive Player of the Year in their career, the other is Michael Jordan. 

He has finished top five MVP finishers three times, with his highest being third in 2017, behind Westbrook and Harden. Leonard would leave the Spurs after a weird 2017-18 season where he missed all of nine games due to a quad injury and didn’t trust the way the staff was treating his injury. He would get traded to the Toronto Raptors for Demar Derozan, for basically a one year rental, but man did it pay off. 

He would go on to lead the Raptors to series victories over the Orlando Magic, Philadelphia 76ers (he hit the amazing game-winner in Game 7 of that series), Milwaukee Bucks (led by league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo), and the beaten down Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals, who lossed Klay Thompson in Game 6 to a torn ACL, and Kevin Durant to a torn Achilles.
He led the Raptors franchise to their one and only championship in franchise history in 2019, having one of the best individual postseason runs in NBA history, scoring a grand total of 732 points in 24 games, good for third all-time in a single postseason. He trails only Jordan (759) and LeBron (748), while the other two guys in the top five are Hakeem Olajuwon (725) and Allen Iverson (723). The only two active players in the top 10 are LeBron and Leonard.

He would then leave the Raptors to go to his hometown Los Angeles and join the Los Angeles Clippers with All-Star Paul George. They haven’t lived up to expectations quite yet, blowing a 3-1 lead in the 2020 Western Semifinals to the Denver Nuggets, and then Leonard going down with a torn ACL against the Utah Jazz in this past postseason. As he returns from his injury, Leonard will look to become the second player ever (LeBron) to win a championship and Finals MVP for three different franchises.

He is a two-time champion, two-time Finals MVP, five-time All-Star, five All-NBA selections, seven All-Defense selections, two DPOY awards, and led the league in steals (2015). He is arguably the best perimeter defender ever in my estimation, with the only who can challenge him being Scottie Pippen. His lack of an MVP and low career totals put him lower on this list, but look for him to rise as his career progresses.