Rookie Leonard filling in nicely for Spurs

Asking any rookie to step in for a veteran, especially when that experienced starter is a fan favorite much less a guy who has been a cornerstone of several NBA championship teams like Manu Ginobili is in San Antonio is a pretty tall order. But it’s one Spurs rookie Kawhi Leonard, the 15th overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, has handled pretty well so far.

The San Diego State product was asked to fill in for Ginobili after the veteran suffered a broken hand in early January and through 20 games, the 6-foot-7 rookie was averaging 7.1 points, 5.1 rebounds and 1.1 steals.

“It just felt good, just knowing that he (Spurs coach Gregg Popovich) had confidence in me to go out there and play and be able to do some part of the role that Manu had on the court,” Leonard said.

It was Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich’s call to put the ex-Aztec in his starting five and for the most part, the man who led San Antonio to four NBA titles has been impressed with what he has seen from his new starter.

“He’s done a good job for a rookie, seems to be a quick learner and willing to stick his nose in. For the limited amount of practice time for rookies this year, I’d say he’s catching on pretty quickly,” Popovich said.

The young small forward offered a similar assessment of how the first 20 games of his professional career have gone. “It’s going good. Just trying to provide some energy for the team when I get out there, just bring some defensive intensity,” Leonard said. “Just the games back-to-back, preparing for each team each day, it’s been a big change for me.”

Like many rookies, he’s savoring the chance to learn all he can from his veteran teammates, which for him is a group that includes the likes of Tim Duncan, Ginobili and Tony Parker.

“It’s been good. Everything they’ve been telling me has been working out good on the court but I’m still learning. I have hard times and good times right now,” Leonard said.

Before the draft, one player this 6-foot-7 small forward was compared to is current Mavericks swingman Shawn Marion, whom he and San Antonio faced on Sunday night in Dallas, a game that the Mavericks won in overtime.

No matter the outcome of that game, being compared to “The Matrix” is a huge honor for this California native. “It’s a great comparison I guess,” Leonard said. “We have different games, a different game but as far as being compared to a veteran that has been in the league for a while and has a championship ring, it’s a great feeling.”

Besides the comparisons to Marion, something else that is usually affixed to anything written about this young three is the fact that he has a strong work ethic and good engine or he brings a full effort each and every time he hits the hardwood, something he takes great pride in.

“I guess I just want to do well in a game,” Leonard said. “That’s just the way I play-just trying to give it my all in the game and just playing hard.”

Yet another aspect of his acclimation process has been playing for Popovich, a coach who can sometimes be especially hard on rookies. But most who have played for “Pop” for a few years can look back on their first year and realize all their coach was trying to do was help them reach their full potential in the NBA, which is definitely how this rookie sees playing for him.    

“He’s been hard on me too at times, just wanting me to get better. Everybody tells me the same thing-that he just wants me to get better,” Leonard said. “I just try to suck it in, learn from my mistakes and failures on the court and improve as a player each and every game.”

But this SDSU product has another pretty big advantage to help him adjust to the league in that the other rookie on the Spurs roster happens to be someone he knows pretty well, former college teammate Malcolm Thomas.

Thomas has played in just three games so far for San Antonio, but just having him around has helped increase his comfort level. “Yeah, I really can’t believe it. Just both in the same locker room last year trying to get to this level and we both end up on the same team, it’s a good feeling,” Leonard said. “It makes you feel a little bit more comfortable in an environment. It’s just a great feeling to know we’ve both made it here.”