SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Kawhi Leonard is soft-spoken, selfless, takes direction well and shuns the spotlight. All of which makes him a perfect fit for the low-key San Antonio Spurs.
Leonard enjoys the limelight as much as Spurs coach Gregg Popovich likes speaking to reporters — which is to say, not much — but his profile might be about to grow.
While the spotlight is clearly fixed on sweet-shooting Stephen Curry as San Antonio hosts Golden State Monday night to open the second round, Leonard’s emergence has given the Spurs their own rising star.
“He’s tremendous,” Warriors point guard Jarrett Jack said. “I think in a year or two he’s definitely going to be one of the top small forwards in this league, somebody who is going to be a potential All-Star candidate.”
Not that Leonard is at all interested in extra attention.
“Right now I’m just here to win games,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what the nation thinks about my game. I have goals set for myself. I want to reach my own goals; I’m not trying to reach anyone’s expectations for myself.”
Leonard’s development in his second season was critical to San Antonio finishing second in the West and capturing the franchise’s 19th division title.
The Spurs traded George Hill to Indiana Pacers in 2011 so they could draft Leonard, and the San Diego State prospect has not disappointed.
With injuries limiting Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and, especially, Manu Ginobili this season, Leonard has arguably become 3A among the Spurs’ Big 3.
“He’s a heck of a basketball player,” Golden State coach Mark Jackson said. “They got a steal in the draft — a guy that knows how to play, that was ready to play and does everything the right way on the floor. His ability to defend, compete, understands his role, has the ability to be a guy that can wait for those guys to make plays but he also has the ability to be facilitate and be a playmaker. The future is extremely bright for him. You can see, at some point, the passing of the torch.”
Leonard averaged 11.9 points during the regular season while shooting 49 percent from the field.
The 6-foot-7 forward was third on the team in scoring, the first time anyone other than the Big 3 has cracked the top three since Ginobili’s rookie season in 2003.
At least one of his baskets each game usually comes off a thunderous dunk after he launches from about the free-throw line.
“My teammates just trust me more, so I’m getting the ball a lot more,” Leonard said. “I’m creating shots for myself.
“Whenever you have teammates that have confidence in your game, it’s always going to make your game better. That’s what a team is; they are supposed to help you in your hard times and in your best times.”
Leonard has also become one of the Spurs’ top defenders, regularly guarding opponents’ primary scorers such as the Los Angeles Lakers’ Kobe Bryant.
“He’s a big key in what we do,” Parker said. “He’s improving and we need him to have a good series against (Golden State).”
The Spurs will need huge contributions from Leonard and all their perimeter players to offset the Warriors.
The Warriors are averaging 107.2 points per game in the postseason, including a league high in points this postseason with a 131-117 win over Denver in Game 2.
San Antonio held Los Angeles to 85.3 points in sweeping the first-round series, but the Lakers were without Bryant. The Spurs don’t have that luxury against the Warriors.
Curry is averaging 24.5 points in the postseason and a league high 9.3 assists.
“He’s like a (Kevin) Durant, a very good shooter,” Parker said. “He’s a great scorer. Right now he’s on a roll. He’s playing great basketball so it’s going to be a good challenge.”
While much attention will be paid defensively to Curry, the Spurs know they cannot focus exclusively on him.
Jack and Klay Thompson each shot 40 percent from 3-point range this season, with Thompson going 211 for 526.
“All three are the same,” Ginobili said. “Even Jarrett Jack that is not supposed to be one of the better shooters in the league, he shot 40 for the season. All three are very skilled shooting well and that’s why they are in the second round.”
Golden State has not won in San Antonio since Feb. 14, 1997 — when Duncan was a senior in college.
“I said it before, it’s not our history,” Jackson said. “We haven’t gotten it done for two years, but we are a team that’s more than capable of going into somebody else’s building and beating them. We feel confident and comfortable about that. That’s not an easy task; but we’re excited about going to San Antonio and facing them. We don’t pay any attention to what history says. Because that body of work is not our body of work.”