Kawhi Leonard- like Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum and Steph Curry- is another reminder of the major impact a basketball star can make despite playing for a smaller university. Leonard enjoyed success at San Diego State where he averaged 14.1 points, 10.2 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game in two collegian seasons. He was selected by the Indiana Pacers- he later went to the San Antonio Spurs- with the 15th overall selection in the 2011 NBA Draft. Leonard performed well with the Spurs. He was able to help lead the Spurs to glory in the 2014 NBA Finals with a 4-1 series victory over the Miami Heat. Eventually, quarrels with the organization divided Leonard and the Spurs causing him to be packaged to the Toronto Raptors in a trade.
The Leonard-to-Toronto trade wasn’t overwhelmingly popular at the time. The Raptors traded DeMar DeRozen, a long time Raptors great, in the deal to acquire Leonard. Many fans of the Raptors were outraged; moreover, there are hundreds of examples on social media of angry tweets, posts and comments showing the lack of popularity of such a major move. Fans were worried about the noncommittal nature of Leonard toward his future team and the possibility that he could leave immediately following the season. That departure would ultimately ruin the organization’s future, and it would almost definitely result in an immediate rebuild. I think the fanbase of the Raptors is very content with the outcome of the trade now.
Leonard led the Raptors to instant success. The Raptors were a forceful foe all season long. The Raptors finished with a 58-24 record, and they fell just a few games back of the best record in the NBA. The Raptors entered the NBA Playoffs as the #2 seed in the Eastern Conference. They handled the Magic easily, but they were definitely given a run for their money against the 76ers. Leonard lifted the Raptors past the 76ers on a quadruple-doink shot to elevate the Raptors to the Eastern Conference Finals. After defeating the Bucks in six games, including 4 straight wins, the Raptors made their NBA Finals debut against a prolific dynasty: The Golden State Warriors. The Raptors defeated the Warriors in six games, and they hoisted their first Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy in franchise history.
So, why list off Leonard’s successes? Anyone can do a quick Google search of the accolades of both Leonard and the teams that he has played for. Everyone knows Leonard is a top-tier player; some even have him at their top of their personal rankings. Despite all the talent and skill that he possesses, Leonard’s biggest impact can’t be found on any stat sheet. Google can’t measure this uncalculatable impact, so it can’t be found in any chart or column. Leonard’s biggest attribute is his unique personality; moreover, even without signing with a team yet, Leonard has already won free agency.
Leonard has a personality unlike anyone else. Leonard is quiet, reserved and driven. He dedicates his time to focusing on his craft, and he is passionate about continuously improving. Leonard drives reporters absolutely crazy because he is the exact opposite of most stars. In an era where most stars like to deliver fiery comments to the media, Leonard barely speaks, and when he does, it’s short and simple. Leonard doesn’t offer many comments that yield scandals or heavy controversy; rather, he focuses on the game and lets his play speak for him. It is virtually impossible to get a good read on him. He is a media heartthrob despite the fact he must make reporters’ lives difficult with the lack of volatility in his character.
Fans are captivated by Leonard because he is unique compared to the rest of the NBA landscape. It’s easy to understand guys like DeMarcus Cousins, Russell Westbrook or Draymond Green because they are always vocal. They speak their minds 24/7, and the media can usually bait them into delivering comments or answering questions that they want to exploit. Leonard is smart enough to avoid the media noise. He avoids confrontation and delivers the bare minimum. Because he is so quiet and typically out of the spotlight, videos like “What it do baby” or the one featuring his laugh are so captivating. In these clips, we see a side of Leonard that we rarely ever witness. These rare gems show that “Board man” is truly a fun guy, but he’s still smart enough to dodge the spotlight. Leonard’s personality is the reason that he’s already won free agency even though he’s still unsigned currently.
It sounds crazy doesn’t it? How can a player, who is unsigned and still debating his future team, have won free agency? Kevin Durant had Sunday evening’s spotlight on him when news broke about Kyrie Irving and him heading to the Brooklyn Nets. While that attention lasted for a decent time, it quickly subsided, and all eyes became glued on Leonard. Instead of “Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?”, it became “Where in the World Is Kawhi Leonard Going?”. Leonard commandeered the spotlight just shortly after the Durant and Irving made their decisions, and the media hasn’t left Leonard alone since.
After listening and watching to the coverage of Leonard’s decision, I can conclude one thing: anyone who says they know where he is going is a liar. Leonard has done a phenomenal job covering everything up. I genuinely have no idea where he will be playing next season. Just last week, I heard multiple reports guaranteeing 90-95% chances of him to play for the Lakers, Clippers and Raptors all in the same week. How can we be 95% sure and have it change so dramatically the next day? Leonard’s evasive personality makes him like eel-like. Just when you feel like you have a good grip on his situation, he slips out of your grasp, and you’re left scratching your head confused. Leonard is simply just playing mind games with not only the United States but also Canada. He owns two different countries’ sports media singlehandedly.
The Lakers are in trouble if Leonard doesn’t sign with them. They may have LeBron James and Anthony Davis, two elite superstars, but they have game planned everything for Leonard. They held off on signing multiple solid pieces and decided to focus on just Leonard. This offseason is a bust if the Lakers can’t capitalize on him. The Clippers acquired some key pieces, but they still need a focal point for their offense. The entire team can’t be 6th man type players. The Clippers have waited in hopes of winning the “Kawhi Leonard sweepstakes”, but they aren’t anywhere near a title contender without him. The Raptors would be in rebuild mode if they can’t retain Leonard. Sure, the Raptors just won the title, but the team was almost entirely driven by him. The entire dynamic of the franchise would shift, and with the Eastern conference being much stronger, the Raptors can kiss an NBA Finals trip goodbye without Leonard.
Leonard most likely knows where he wishes to play by now, yet he holds the future of three NBA franchises, including the hopes and dreams of Canada, in the palm of his hands. He has a grip on most social media outlets without even saying a word. When Leonard landed in a plane in Toronto, the media went crazy and covered the event like the O.J. Simpson chase. We are so infatuated with “Board man”, yet he could care less. Leonard is by far the league’s most prized jewel.
How can Kawhi be the most important player to the NBA from a marketing angle? There are many reasons, but here are just a few: small collegian school, a unique path to the NBA, a quiet and special demeanor, multicultural and multinational ties and a rejection of typical NBA player norms. He is so starkly different than the athletes around him that he pops to life against the monotone, uniform backdrop of the rest of the league. In a world with flashy lights, loud music and all the bells and whistles you can dream of, Leonard is a refreshing and unique take on the typical NBA star, and fans are now flocking to the former SDSU star. Leonard has exploded in popularity since joining the Raptors, and I don’t see it slowing down soon.
Leonard has burst into the NBA spotlight, and I don’t think his time there will be short-lived. Leonard has the physical intangibles and gifts to play, but he also is handling the media extremely well. He’s a quiet and laid-back guy, and yet he still captivates the minds basketball fans around the world. Leonard is a hot commodity, and I can’t see silent sensation not being the focal point of the NBA for the upcoming future. Being different is never a bad thing, and in Leonard’s case, it makes all the difference.