FRAN FRASCHILLA ARRIVED arrived at the 2008 Paul Pierce skill development camp at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, California, waiting to be impressed.
“We had about 25 kids there,” said Fraschilla, the ESPN analyst and former college basketball coach, “and I don’t want to look at the list of kids and see where they are ranked. I’m going to coach the guys in the drills — we had a two-hour workout — and try to make up my mind after the first workout who can play, and who is better than who, or whatever.”
With that in mind, Fraschilla put 25 of the best high school wing players in the country through their paces. And, before long, one of them stood out among the rest.
“After the first morning, this kid was always at the front of the line,” Fraschilla said. “He never said anything in the drills, but he was a ferocious competitor. When I asked about him, they said he was a local kid from the Inland Empire [a region that begins about 40 miles east of downtown Los Angeles], and we wanted to give him a chance.
“He competed the entire three days and didn’t say a word. I don’t remember a conversation with him. … I don’t even remember what his voice was at the time.”
More than a decade later, the question remains: Who is Kawhi Leonard?
KAWHI LEONARD IS is a man of few words.
His coaches at San Diego State learned that quickly as they were trying to recruit him — and struggling to get him to return their phone calls.
“He was fun to talk to,” said Justin Hutson, one of the assistant coaches on Steve Fisher’s staff who was tasked with recruiting Leonard. “But he just wasn’t easy to get ahold of.
“Once you got him on the phone, he was engaging, would talk to you. But you just had to be persistent.”
Hutson, now the head coach at Fresno State, would regularly get in his car and drive the roughly 100 miles north from San Diego to Martin Luther King High School in Riverside, California, to see Leonard practice and play.
Eventually, as Leonard’s star began to rise — he was named California’s Mr. Basketball after his senior season — major conference schools began calling.
“I think he thought we were sincere in what we were saying and how we were behaving,” Hutson said.
“It’s very simple. He wants to win basketball games, and work hard. He’s a loyal guy, and I think that was important to him that we were sincere.”
Leonard boiled it down even more.
“I always thought, even just growing up, go with the people that love you the most,” he said. “Don’t go to somebody that doesn’t want you.
“San Diego State was recruiting me, and one of my friends was going there, too, so that was a big part of me going there. And, them sticking around, that was that much better. … I wanted to go to a school that loved me.”
Leonard also wanted to go to a school that provided him a path to the next level. During Leonard’s senior year of high school, the Aztecs had a senior wing named Lorrenzo Wade, who was being discussed as a possible NBA second-round pick.
Though Wade ultimately wasn’t drafted, it was proof enough to Leonard that the school would give him a true opportunity to chase his ambitious dreams.
“I knew you could go to the NBA from the school, and that’s all I wanted,” Leonard said. “To go to a school where I could play right away, show my talent and be able to be looked at by scouts.”
KAWHI LEONARD IS a man with a single goal.
It’s the one underlying principle that has driven him since high school: He never will be accused of not working hard enough.
“I always used to be outside playing, watching the games, trying to work on my moves,” Leonard told ESPN. “I was in ninth grade or 10th grade, and [the other players] were seniors, and they were trying to get into Division I. But they started working out too late, so they were looking at D-2. I just never wanted to be in that predicament, where I was scrambling last minute.”
That wouldn’t be a problem for Leonard, who eventually began to think about bigger goals than Division I basketball. By the time he was a junior in high school, Leonard was confident he could eventually play in the NBA.
“I was 6-6, I could shoot the ball, and I wasn’t playing the post just because I was big,” Leonard said, surgically ticking off his skills at the time.
And, all the while, he was scanning the competition around him to see how he measured up. As he was preparing for his senior year, another hot prospect from a rival high school, Malcolm Lee, was preparing to begin his college career at UCLA.
“He was better than me at the time,” Leonard said. “But I just knew that, if I worked, I could get there.”
And among those who knew Leonard best, there was never any doubt that he would put in the work.
“It’s very simple. He wants to win basketball games, and work hard.”
Justin Hutson on Kawhi Leonard
“[He was] self-disciplined,” said Clint Parks, Leonard’s longtime trainer. “You never had to be like, ‘Hey, you needed to be at the gym. Is this important [to you]?’ I never had to say that. I don’t know if someone else did, but I can’t imagine it. Nothing came before getting better.”
Leonard was always sizing up the next rung of competition. The Paul Pierce camp where he crossed paths with Fraschilla offered him a singular opportunity to separate himself from the pack. The smaller roster of attendees meant everyone watching would be forced to see how each participant performed.
“It was good, just being able to be in front of NBA scouts who could see what your game was about,” Leonard told ESPN. “There wasn’t 100 players there, so they could really see you play, and see how you play against the best players.”
For Leonard, those best players were the other local stars who served as a measuring stick. There was Lee, the nearby rival whom Leonard saw as a marker to chase down. Ditto for James Harden, another Southern California product who would go on to be the No. 3 pick in the 2009 NBA draft. At first, though, Leonard’s goals were far more modest than trying to replicate Harden’s rise.
“I just always looked at the last guy on the end of the bench, and thought I could be better than him,” Leonard said. “I thought I always had a chance.”
Others, though, knew Leonard could be more.
“He was an NBA player when he was a freshman in college,” Trevor Ariza told ESPN.
KAWHI LEONARD IS not afraid to test himself against the best.
When he was working out at San Diego State in 2010, between his freshman and sophomore seasons, he got word that Ariza — then firmly entrenched as an NBA player, and already having won a title with the Los Angeles Lakers — would be working out on campus.
So Leonard sought out Ariza, who had come to work out with his trainer, former Aztecs guard Tony Bland, and asked to take part. Ariza agreed, and found himself immediately impressed with how Leonard handled himself.
“Man, my first impression of him was, ‘This kid is here to work, period,'” Ariza told ESPN with a laugh. “No matter what.”
That summer in San Diego, Ariza was putting in plenty of work. Every day, he would get in the gym twice — once early in the morning, and then again in the evening. It was a grueling schedule, one Ariza thought would put him above and beyond anyone else.
There was only one problem: Leonard.
“I prided myself on being there first person in all the time,” Ariza said. “And, when I got there, he was already there. He’d done everything he needed to do, and he was ready to work out again. … When I saw the work ethic he had, I knew he was going to be special.”
Leonard was motivated to show up early to test himself against an NBA player. And Ariza wasn’t just any NBA player. He was someone Leonard respected — but also someone who didn’t overwhelm the young forward on the court.
“Trevor was big for me in college,” Leonard said. “Playing against him, I just felt like I held my own at the time.
“I probably won a game. I don’t remember. … [but] I was fortunate he would let me work out with him.”
Leonard might not remember, but Ariza certainly did.
“He was winning one-on-one drills that we were playing. He didn’t win them all, but he wanted to,” Ariza said with a laugh. “He went as hard as he could every single time. … He has that edge to him that you need to be the caliber of player that he is.”
KAWHI LEONARD IS still improving.
When Leonard was selected by the Indiana Pacers with the No. 15 overall pick in the 2011 draft and immediately traded to the San Antonio Spurs, he was seen as a player with a nice future as a defensive stopper on the wing.
“Just how long his arms were and how big his hands were, like everybody else,” Danny Green told ESPN with a smile, when asked what stood out about Leonard when he first met him. “He’s like a science experiment.
“At first, nobody could gauge or guess [what he’d become]. Nobody could predict that. Nobody looked at him as something special.”
The first signs of something different about Leonard, though, came right after the Spurs got their hands on him. With an NBA work stoppage rapidly approaching, there were only seven days when the Spurs could work with him before he wouldn’t be allowed to have contact with the team.
So Leonard spent as much of the week between the draft and the lockout as possible working with Chip Engelland, the Spurs’ famed shooting coach; the knock on Leonard coming into the draft had been that he struggled to make shots consistently. By the time Leonard returned to San Antonio after the 161-day lockout ended, he had completely remade his shot. After making just 29% of his 3-point attempts from the shorter college line as a sophomore, he shot 37.6% from beyond the arc as a rookie, fifth best among rookies who attempted at least 100 3-pointers that season.
Things quickly escalated from there, to the point where Leonard has grown into arguably the best player in the world — one capable of impacting games at both ends from anywhere on the court, as he did to start the third quarter of Game 4 of the 2019 NBA Finals by hitting back-to-back 3-pointers over Draymond Green, sandwiched around stealing the ball from him.
“I think maybe a couple years ago, early in his career when he first started coming into his own, there was a lot of, ‘Where the f— did this come from?'” Danny Green said. “Coming into the league he was a defensive guy and he became a one-on-one offensive guy who could shoot the ball from 3.
“When he started emerging, I think teams were like, ‘Wow.'”
Leonard’s 36-point performance Friday night was his 14th 30-point game this postseason. Only Hakeem Olajuwon, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant have had more. It’s impressive company for someone who wasn’t seen as a scorer when he came into the league.
“You got to give him his credit,” Draymond Green said. “He imposed his will on the game, and all the other guys followed him. So I’m not sure if it will ever look like those other guys, but he gets the job done.”
As for how he gets it done, Parks has a simple explanation.
“I always tell people, ‘Kawhi Leonard has been the truth,'” Parks said. “His story is about his work ethic, if you ask me. That’s what will always stand out about him.”
KAWHI LEONARD IS a fun guy.
That was his description of himself — one he immediately followed up with “I love the game of basketball” — when introduced to the Toronto media in September. New Balance launched a “Fun Guy” campaign after signing Leonard earlier this season, and the unusual laugh that ended his answer at that media session has since become the stuff of viral legend.
But those who know Leonard away from the court will unanimously say he’s far funnier than given credit for.
“There’s no question he has a dry sense of humor,” Hutson said. “That describes him very well.”
Raptors teammate Kyle Lowry backed up that sentiment.
“He’s funny as s—,” Lowry said. “He’s got a dry sense of humor. He’s got a Vince Vaughn-like [sense of humor].”
This statement was later relayed to Leonard.
“Vince Vaughn? Who’s that?” Leonard asked.
One of the stars of “Old School” is described to Leonard, who shows a glimpse of recognition.
“Oh, yeah, yeah. I know who you’re talking about,” Leonard said, breaking out in a smile.
Then, he pauses.
“I don’t know. I guess people describe you better than yourself, right?”