Gregg Popovich says “to hell with the Big 3”, Kawhi Leonard is the “Big 1”
It’s no secret that the San Antonio Spurs and head coach Gregg Popovich are grooming the young Kawhi Leonard to be the new face and star of the Spurs franchise post-Tim Duncan. The 23-year-old made an enormous stride towards that label by winning the 2013 NBA Finals MVP and practically outplaying LeBron James. Popovich is starting to implore any and all strategies to help instigate Leonard’s development and confidence, and he’s still not shy about it either.
From a profile by Michael Lee from the Washington Post:
“We’re trying to loosen up a bit and give him more of a green light,” Popovich said. “He’s getting more license. When you’re a young kid, you’re going to defer to Timmy and Manu and [Tony]. Now it’s like, ‘To heck with those guys. The Big Three, they’re older than dirt. To hell with them. You’re the Big One. You’ve got to go do your deal.’ So, we’re trying to get him to be more demonstrative in that regard.”
Popovich didn’t need to see Leonard become the youngest NBA Finals MVP since Magic Johnson in 1982 last June to be sold on the 23-year-old San Diego State product. But Leonard’s breakout showing during the Spurs’ five-game annihilation of the Heat merely validated Popovich’s belief in the unassuming rising star. The two had an emotional exchange late in Game 3 of the NBA Finals when Leonard scored 29 points and Popovich gave him four tough-love jabs across the chest.
“I said, ‘This is you. This, Kawhi Leonard. You have arrived. This is what I’m talking about. Now you do it over, and over and over again. That’s what the big boys do,” Popovich said of Leonard, who posted 23.7 points on 68.6 percent shooting with 9.3 rebounds and 2.0 blocks in the final three games.
So far this season, Leonard is averaging a career-high 15.1 points and 7 rebounds per game. He’s scored 20 points or more in four games after dropping 26 points on Philly on Monday.
“What the big boys do”, as Popovich put it, is bring their aggression and effort every night. Leonard will be tasked with not only being the Spurs’ best individual defender, but also the go-to guy on the offensive end when Duncan, Ginobili, and Parker are gone. Surely the emphasis will still be to surround Leonard with the necessary pieces to create a balanced scheme, but Kawhi Leonard as the centerpiece for this Spurs team brings different dynamics into play than having Tim Duncan as such for over a decade now.
It won’t be too long before we see Leonard audition as the “Big One” in San Antonio.