Kawhi Leonard has been the star of these NBA Playoffs. Kawhi has averaged 31 points, 9 rebounds, and 4 assists on 50% shooting from the floor, 39% shooting from behind the three-point line, and 89% shooting from the free-throw line in these playoffs. The Toronto Raptors lead Golden State 3-1 in the Finals and are within a game of the NBA Championship.
Kawhi’s quiet and melancholy personality is extraordinarily unique for a star of his magnitude, and it naturally makes people wonder what he was like in his younger days. Earlier this week, Jayson Jenks of The Athletic wrote a piece that delved into Kawhi’s college days at San Diego State University, drawing from interviews with players and coaches from that period at SDSU. Let’s look at some of the best nuggets from the article:
He was hard to reach on the phone
According to assistant coaches and players who tried to reach out to him during his recruitment, Kawhi preferred to communicate the old-fashioned way: face-to-face. SDSU player Tim Shelton says, “He wasn’t going to text you; he wasn’t going to pick up the phone and talk to you.” Whereas assistant coach Justin Hutson confirmed, “You couldn’t get him on the phone. Once a week, I’d just have to go up to his high school…”.
It is unusual that a player with Kawhi’s athletic ability and basketball talent went to a mid-major school like San Diego State. Perhaps one reason is that larger schools assumed that he was not interested, as he would not return their phone calls or texts?
He was obsessed with Michael Jordan highlights
At SDSU, Head Coach Steve Fisher had a rule that players were not allowed to use their cell phones at team dinners. Kawhi Leonard, however, was so obsessed with Michael Jordan highlights that he couldn’t put his phone away. According to assistant coach Dave Velasquez, “…Kawhi would have his phone on his lap, watching Jordan highlights.” But Kawhi wouldn’t just watch Jordan highlights at team dinners. Velasquez says he would also begin to watch Jordan immediately after a game; “We’d be done with the game, and he’d be on his phone watching Jordan on YouTube. Right away.”
He would also go to team manager John Van Houten’s house to watch Jordan highlights. Van Houten says, “He’d come over to my house, and he’d watch Michael Jordan highlights. We called them “Mike highs”…I mean, like four or five hours at a time.” It seems as if some of the similarities between Jordan and Leonard were by design.
His work ethic was legendary
A consistent theme amongst teammates and coaches was Kawhi Leonard’s incredible work ethic. He was constantly working on his game. Teammates say that Kawhi enjoyed working on his game on his mini hoop, which he hung on the back of his apartment door. He would challenge teammates to contests, but there was one rule: you could only play with your left hand. Kawhi’s relentless work ethic left a deep impression on his teammates.
Teammate Jamaal Franklin, who is currently playing in China, says that “He was the hardest worker. While we were going to class, he would hold his papers for the class in his hand and in his backpack he had his sports gear: his shoes, the ball. He was always in the gym. At night, in the day.” Despite his immense physical gifts, coaches say that his most exceptional talent was his work ethic. Assistant coach Justin Hutson sums up his time with Kawhi Leonard by saying, “I was fortunate enough to be around a genius. He had a genius work ethic.”
Kawhi’s genius work ethic has translated into genius on the hardwood. Will it be enough to close the door on the Warriors dynasty?