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How Gregg Popovich tweaked his coaching style to fit Kawhi Leonard's nonverbal approach

When Kawhi Leonard starts curling his lips, Gregg Popovich knows he did something wrong.
Gregg Popovich during a Spurs timeout with Kawhi Leonard

Gregg Popovich and Kawhi Leonard

There’s this fear among NBA fans that once LA Clippers star Kawhi Leonard retires, we may never hear from him again. While Leonard belongs to the same ilk as LeBron James, Stephen Curry, and Kevin Durant, he isn’t as gregarious with regard to promoting his brand. Legendary head coach Gregg Popovich knew this from the very beginning. He knew he had to take a different approach to unveil Leonard’s searing potential.

Coaching Kawhi

Back in 2016, in the middle of Leonard’s rise as a legitimate NBA superstar, Popovich revealed some bits about the Claw’s attitude. The legendary coach observed that Leonard is a perfectionist of some sort. When he commits an error, it really irks him. And this is where Popovich reinstills his confidence back.

“When Kawhi makes a mistake, he's almost apologetic. He doesn't want to disappoint anybody. There are times he does something well, and I have to tell him, 'That was super. That was fantastic. That was a helluva job. You can smile now. You can feel great about yourself.'" Popovich said, per Sports Illustrated.

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The San Antonio Spurs head coach also observed Leonard’s craving to play basketball. So much so that Kawhi doesn’t like to be taken out of the court. At least not until he plays his usual minutes. Kawhi will not say a word, but his actions scream his dissatisfaction. Popovich knows what to say when he sees Leonard curling his lips.

"If I bring him out too early, for example, he'll go like this": Popovich curls up one side of his lip. "What he's saying is, 'Pop, why the f--- are you bringing me out so early?' but he'd never actually say that. So I tell him, 'I'll get back to you,' and he nods and sits down."

Gregg Popovich, Sports Illustrated

Some might feel that Leonard is acting like a diva. Why would a legendary coach adjust to please him? Well, that’s one of the jobs of a coach. The goal is to maximize the potential of his players. Not everyone is built the same. Some are extroverted. Some are like Kawhi, who keeps his thoughts to himself. A coach needs to be able to know his players and think of ways to approach them.

Kawhi’s future

NBA fans didn’t hear a word from Leonard in the 2021-22 NBA season. All we knew was that he was recovering from a partial ACL tear in his right knee. Amid his absence, the Clippers performed relatively well. The front office made some key acquisitions as well. Veterans Norman Powell and Robert Covington were added, which truly beefed up their roster.

Recent reports reveal that Leonard has started working out and was even spotted hooping in the Dominican republic.

Perhaps all these are good indicators that Leonard will finally lace his shoes up in the 2023-23 NBA Season. We will finally see the Claw in action, backed up by a much more solid Clippers roster. A playoff appearance is definitely on the horizon. And we all know Leonard can lead a team to an NBA Championship.

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