Last night, San Diego State sophomore Kawhi Leonard had his eighth double-double of the season with 23 points and 14 rebounds as the Aztecs (13-0) downed San Francisco 62-56 in the Las Vegas Holiday Hoops Classic. And while Leonard may not be a household name yet, he will be soon. With San Diego State currently ranked seventh in the nation, you better believe they’ve set the bar high for this season.
The casual college basketball fan may not know of San Diego State’s do-everything 6-7 forward Kawhi Leonard, but NBA scouts sure do. After a freshman season in which he finished among the top in the Mountain West Conference in scoring, rebounding and steals, the late-bloomer showed up on many Draft boards.
Once upon a time, this was a farfetched idea. Leonard was a football player and never played organized ball. He lined up at wide receiver and safety as a freshman at King High School in Riverside, Calif. Following that season, he grew from 5-11 to 6-4. Naturally, he switched his dreams to the hoops variety, and Leonard credits his pals along with his growth spurt.
It was already tough enough to adjust to his newfound height, but Leonard had to get acclimated to the hardwood. He did not mistake the round ball with the pigskin, but there still was an adjustment period.
“I just started playing basketball more because all of my friends played basketball,” says Leonard. “It was kind of hard because I didn’t understand the basic fundamentals of defense and just basic offensive stuff.”
Leonard decided to commit to the game full-time, and it showed in his last two years at King. Averaging 17.3 points and 6.5 rebounds per game, he guided the squad to a 32-3 record in his junior year. Having been nonexistent on the summer circuit, Leonard tested his mettle against the nation’s best playing for Riverside Elite. There was all this talk of ranked players. Yeah, Kawhi was a solid player in his own right, but was uninitiated in the prep hoops hype machine.
“One of my first games, people talked about ranked players,” recalls Leonard. “I never knew who they were. I really wasn’t nervous. I just played my hardest every game.”
Leonard gained confidence playing on the circuit, and by being involved with Eleate Sports, a non-profit organization that provides young athletes the framework and stage to achieve excellence through sports. Through these two avenues, Leonard solidified himself as a top prospect heading into his senior year, putting up 22.6 points, 13.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 3.0 blocks per outing. At least six times he scored 20 points and grabbed 20 rebounds. King won the California Interscholastic Federation Southern Section Division 1-AA title, and Leonard was named the Los Angeles Times Player of the Year.
One would think colleges would come clamoring for his services. Quite the contrary. Leonard did gain small interest from the Pac-10′s USC, UCLA, Arizona State and Arizona, but the Aztecs showed him the most love.
“I wanted to play for SC (Southern Cal), but they did not want me as much as San Diego State,” says Leonard. “They were one of the first schools to really start recruiting me. They just called me as much as they could and said how much they wanted me. They came to a lot of my games and practices.”
San Diego State head coach Steve Fisher certainly is elated his recruiting efforts paid off. Knowing a little about fabulous freshmen from his days leading Michigan in the 90s, he routinely hails Leonard as the best recruit in the program’s history. He earned it, being named to the All-Mountain West First Team and winning conference tournament MVP in a conference that also boasts high-scoring BYU guard Jimmer Fredette. The lanky, yet chiseled Leonard was also the only freshman in the nation to lead a team that went to the NCAA tournament in scoring (12.7) and rebounding (13.1).
Leonard is amazed at his ability to drive opponents crazy with his combination of offensive skills, defensive intensity and effort on the boards. You have to remember he just started playing ball.
“I surprised myself a lot,” says Leonard. “When I first started it was real hard for me to adjust to the game, the court length and how hard the players played each night. As the season went on, it started to get a little bit easier for me. I wanted to prove that I could play at the high-major D-I level if I chose to. I just try to show people that there are others players at the mid-majors and can still do what you do.”
Not resting on his laurels, Leonard spent his summer working on foot speed to be able to guard quicker players and shooting. There was also a lot of running and time in the weight room. Leonard admitted to getting worn out at the end of games toward the end of the season.
Unfortunately, San Diego State won’t be sneaking up on anyone this year. They are ranked 25th in the preseason AP Top 25 poll, a first in the program’s 41 years at the Division I level. Getting a taste of tourney play in their 62-59 first-round loss to Tennessee, Leonard says the team hopes to be the life of the party during the Big Dance this time around.
“Everything is good right now,” says Leonard. “We are just starting to put in some plays that we ran last year and just trying to get the chemistry going. We’re just working hard every day. Hopefully this year we can go further. Goals this year are to win our conference and advance to the NCAA and at least go to the Final Four. We’re very confident. We have the starting five back. We think we can compete with the best.”
As far as his post-college plans? Leonard has to be thinking about joining his idol Carmelo Anthony in the League.
“Last year, I was just focused on the next season,” says Leonard. “I really didn’t think about going to the NBA. I just wanted to come back and try to improve so I can be a better player and make my team better. My family, they just tell me every day to stay focused. Just stay hungry. I’m just focused on school and this upcoming year. I can’t lose my focus.”
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