LeBron James, Steph Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Russell Westbrook, and Joel Embiid, are just a few of the NBA’s most prized superstars. The NBA is quickly becoming more and more popular and is chasing down the NFL as “America’s sport”, and much of that increased popularity is due to the uptick in fan interaction, on and off-court drama, social media, along with the unbelievable talent across the entire sport. In a league full extroverts, the most dominant player of the 2019 NBA postseason makes noise on the court, but does it all without a peep.
The term introvert is a personality type consisting of someone who tends to be shy, reserved, and contemplative, whereas an extrovert is someone who thrives in social situations. No NBA star fits the introvert personality type more than the Toronto Raptor’s star, Kawhi Leonard. Though dominant on the court, his personality off the court he his far different from his competitors that dominate the NBA landscape. While some stars choose to stir drama or be bold during press conferences and social media, the former Spur seems to be content sitting in the background.
Though while on screen Kawhi is strictly business, friends in his circle say he is fun to be around and easygoing. Even former teammate Matt Bonner says, “He’ll come up with some good laughs, and one-liners. He is underhandedly really funny. He has one of the best smiles you’ve ever seen. It’s contagious.” His current teammate Kyle Lowry also chimed in saying, “He’s funny as sh*t! He’s got a dry sense of humor. He’s got a Vince Vaughn-like [sense of humor].” Though with a contagious smile, life wasn’t always squeekly clean for the former San Diego State Aztec.
Growing up in Los Angeles, California the journey to the NBA wasn’t easy for Kawhi Leonard. As an introvert and an emerging basketball star for Martin Luther King High School, Leonard was struck with adversity in heartbreaking fashion. As a junior at Martin Luther King, Leonard’s father, Mark Leonard was shot and killed in Compton. At 16 years-old, Leonard was hit with an obstacle that will stay with him forever.
Now, I have no knowledge of Kawhi’s experience in life. I have no knowledge of the people around him, but life-altering moments such as losing a parent or other traumatizing events can stick with people and change them long after the event. Traumatizing events can make extroverts even more extroverted than before, as well as make introverts more introverted. I’ll say from experience, when I lost one of best friends at the age of 16, I think that I became much more introverted and had a spike in anxiety.
Now I’m not saying that Kawhi’s experiences have had an effect on his personality type. I can’t make any statements about Kawhi and how his life has shaped his personality and who he is. What I do know that traumatizing moments can have a lasting impact on people, years after the event occurs.
As Leonard wrapped up his senior year, he had interest from nearly every college in the southwest. Schools like Arizona, Arizona State, UCLA, and USC were all after the lanky star. Different from many of today’s big time prospective student athletes, Kawhi wasn’t one to post his new offers or be easily contacted by coaches. Justin Jutson, an assistant coach who helped recruit Leonard to SDSU says, “He was a guy that you had to go find because he wasn’t always going to pick up his phone. He was not easy to get in touch with, not easy to read, but he was genuine with me. So if you continue to work and call and go see him and text, he appreciated that.” When it came down to decision time, all those calls and messages from coach Hutson and the SDSU coaching staff paid off as Leonard chose to become an Aztec at San Diego State.
The small circle that introverts tend to have was a driving point throughout Leonard’s recruiting process. As the SDSU staff continued to build a strong relationship with Leonard, that relationship built over years had finally paid off.
Leonard went on to have a great career at SDSU, taking them to the NCAA tournament not once, twice. As the draft approached, there were rumors that Kawhi would not only be a first round pick, but that he may creep into the top 10. All bets were off on where Leonard would land. Leonard wound up being drafted 15th overall by the Indiana Pacers and immediately traded to a team that seemed like a perfect fit, the San Antonio Spurs. In a smaller market, a phenomenal coach, a crispy clean culture, and another introverted star in Tim Duncan who was ready to hand over the reigns to the franchise, could you have picked a better spot for the quiet Leonard?
Not only was Kawhi able to be coached by future Hall of Famer, Gregg Popovich, but he was able to learn from another introverted NBA star. Tim Duncan, known as one of the NBA’s greatest forwards and a future first ballot Hall of Famer was on his way out and Kawhi came in at a perfect time for the torched to passed down to the rookie. Spurs television analyst and former teammate of Duncan, Sean Elliott points out an important part in the development of Kawhi from a rookie to an NBA star and the role Duncan played in that development. Elliot explained, “You see a lot or resistance by veterans to pass the torch, because they still want to stay relevant and still want to be the guy. But I think we were so fortunate in San Antonio, because David [Robinson] was willing to pass the torch to Timmy [Duncan], and Timmy learned from that. Elliot continues with “Timmy remembers those lessons, and he [was] able to willingly pass the torch to Kawhi.” Can you imagine how The Claw’s career may have changed if he wasn’t willingly given the torch to the Spurs? As a shy and quiet individual, he may not have developed into the star player he is today.
As Kawhi grew into an NBA star he was a major part of taking the San Antonio Spurs to two NBA Finals, earning a championship along the way in his eight years as a member of the organization. In 2018, Kawhi’s injury riddled year led to rumors if he was ready to play or if he had “quit” on his team. As introverts typically do, when Kawhi stayed quiet on the topic, but things seemed to boil over until the Spurs and Raptors pulled off a blockbuster trade that sent shockwaves throughout the NBA. The Raptors traded for Leonard in exchange for another All-Star in Demar Derozan.
Now as a Raptor, Kawhi has played some of his best basketball north of the border, taking the Raptors to the NBA Finals. Now with the Golden State Warriors looking for a three-peat, Kawhi has the Raptors, Jurassic Park, and Drake to a position to take the throne of the NBA with a 3-1 series lead over Curry, Thompson, Durant, and the rest of the vaunted Warriors team.
To say The Claw has been dominante this year is an understatement. Along with averaging a slick 31.1 points per game, 9.1 rebounds, and 3.9 assists per game, Kawhi has dominated when it matters. He leads the playoffs with total points scored in the clutch. In today’s three point shooting era, the mid-range game has become a lost art, but Kawhi has proven that it’s still effective. He’s making a living from the mid-range with 16% of his total points coming from the mid-range, while also shooting at a 49.5% clip. Along with the midrange, Kawhi has been calling for the isolation play and going to work. He is making 66% of his attempts when he tries to score unassisted. As he looks to wrap up the series tonight in Game 5 in Toronto, expect to see a lot of midrange, and unassisted dominance from the Board Man.
Fastword two weeks from now. With the best NBA free agent class since the incredible 2010 class highlighted by Lebron James making his signature announcement, The Decision, Kawhi will have a decision to make this offseason. As a free agent, he’ll be able to choose which organization he wants to represent for the first time in his professional career. Now, I’m no NBA expert and won’t drop an Woj bombs anytime soon, but looking into Kawhi’s tendencies, loyalty has always been something near to him. Look back at his time during his college decision. SDSU wasn’t the biggest or most glamorous school that was after the California native. With schools like UCLA, USC, and Arizona after him, he chose to play for the mid-major school that was his first college offer. Looking at the NBA landscape, I see two destinations that may provide some loyalty to him, those teams are the Los Angeles Lakers and the Toronto Raptors. With family in LA and his close circle in the southwest, obviously the Lakers make sense, but don’t write of Toronto just yet. With an NBA championship over the Golden State Warriors, Kawhi may become one of the major faces of sports in the country of Canada. The friendly Canadians I’m sure would be more than willing to welcome the LA native to The Six. They have shown loyalty and tons of support to the 27 year-old.
No matter where Kawhi Leonard lands this summer, he will continue to be one of the most mysterious men in the NBA. His killer instinct on the court, but soft smile and choice of simplicity is a rare combination in today’s go-go-go world. His introverted personality is a change of pace in an NBA filled with social media fights and divas on the court. As Kawhi looks to bring a title back to Toronto, he’ll do it with a soft smile, a killer mentality, and maybe a one-liner or two.