What does it take to be a franchise player in the NBA? Like nearly anything in basketball, that question is pretty subjective and can even extend to marketing aspects of the game if you’re an Allen Iverson or Shaquille O’Neal.
One thing that that is an absolute must in any NBA superstar is undeniable, attention grabbing talent. In today’s game, players like Paul George, DeMarcus Cousins and Andre Drummond are steady making their names as elite players, all of whom were selected in the top 10 of their respective draft classes.
But, no one is in the same league, or even the same planet as the 2014-15 Most Valuable Player and Golden State’s golden boy, Steph Curry, right?
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Kawhi Leonard resides in that same stratosphere. The San Antonio Spurs small forward is currently breathing the rarefied air that a young Kobe Bryant once inhaled and, dare I say, the kind of air Michael Jordan found so intoxicating?
MJ’s great name isn’t one to be bounced around frivolously with every ascending star. Still, at 24-years-old, Leonard has made the tentative steps required to stride all the way alongside the all-time greats.
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Los Angeles-born Leonard is one of only three players in history to become an All-Star, win Defensive Player of the Year and win a Finals MVP. Who are the other two? Hakeem Olajuwon and Michael Jordan.
The esteemed company is indicative of the feat.
Lest we forget, his Finals MVP award came via a magnificent display, limiting the influence of a certain LeBron James in 2014. He's not a bad small forward either, by the way.
There’s no question that Leonard is the future in Texas with an ageing old guard of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili in the winter of their careers. Does Leonard have the tools to lead the Spurs in the same way that Curry does the Warriors?
When the Warriors and Spurs met last Monday, Steph Curry was the clear victor. After Parker had an unsuccessful spell trying to mark the irrepressible Curry, Leonard stepped to the plate mid-way through the second quarter to squash the NBA’s leading scorer - who averages 30.3 points a night.
Curry went into overdrive. Leonard managed 16 points himself, but Curry smashed down 37 points to spearhead a 120-90 blowout win for the reigning NBA champions.
The manner of the buckets will hurt Leonard more. Several times it was Curry’s incredible handle and moments notice jumper that got the better of the 15th pick in the 2011 draft.
Curry may have won that battle, but Leonard can win the war.
Without question, he is the cream of the defensive crop in the NBA today. The San Diego State graduate is holding his opponents to just 39.4 percent on field goals this term and played a pivotal role in the Spurs 14-2 December run, shutting out top-tier talents like George in the process.
Leonard has also been deadly on offence, too. At 6’7”, he’s become the perfect stretch forward with an immaculate record from three-point range. Leonard is shooting 48.1% from behind the arc and only JJ Reddick of the Clippers (48.9%) can better that. Curry trails in fourth with 45.6%.
Leonard is also racking up an average of 20 points a game at present. Originally drafted by the Pacers before being traded for George Hill, Leonard has steadily increased his output with every season in the league.
The reigning Defensive Player of the Year has grown his offensive game over the summer and is currently projecting career bests in points per game, field goal percentage, three-pointers and free throws.
The casual fan will probably think of Michael Jordan as an insane scorer and a master of gravity-defying dunks. He was that, but he was also nine-time NBA all-defensive first team and a three-time NBA steals champion.
Leonard has the foundations to go on and be an NBA great. Sure, Curry’s seemingly limitless range is more aesthetically pleasing to most expectant eyes, but Leonard’s repertoire is something of beauty in its own right.
The Spurs have the number one defence in the NBA. The gap in defensive rating between the Spurs and the Boston Celtics - the second best defence - is incredibly the same as the gap between the Celtics and the league’s twenty-third best defence.
Leonard is the heartbeat and main proponent of that record and is a legitimate and formidable threat on the front end, too. His continuing growth will scare and excite NBA fans and franchises alike.