October 04, 2010
For a kid who received only late interest from most marquee West Coast programs and none at all from a handful of others, San Diego State's Kawhi Leonard is remarkably comfortable with how things turned out.
Not only is the sophomore happy to be playing for a San Diego State program favored to make its second straight NCAA tournament next season, he also insists doesn't use the recruiting snubs as motivation the way other players in his position do.
"I didn't get caught up in stuff like that," Leonard said. "I just chose a school I liked and moved forward. I just knew if you could play, somebody's always watching. It's not the school that brings out your name. It's about you."
Leonard proved that point during a brilliant freshman season by earning Mountain West freshman of the year honors, drawing the attention of NBA scouts and making bigger programs regret not recruiting him harder. The 6-foot-7 forward averaged a team-high 12.7 points, 9.9 boards and 1.4 steals per game, leading San Diego State to a Mountain West tournament championship and an NCAA tournament berth.
Although Leonard was the only freshman to lead an NCAA tournament team in scoring and rebounding last season, the Riverside, Calif. native believes the conditioning work he's done this summer will help him improve as a sophomore. The physical demands of Leonard's first season of college basketball took a toll on him, so he spent the summer lifting weights, doing core work and running sprints on the track.
"I want to last longer during the season and have more stamina during games," Leonard said. "I didn't really feel fatigued last season, but I felt like I wasn't at my potential most of the time. I felt like if I put in the work this summer, I can be that much better."
It's easy to criticize the UCLAs, USCs and Arizonas of the world for not spotting Leonard sooner, but there were some factors that prevented them from identifying him as a future star.
At a time when many big-time prospects are well known by their 15th birthdays, the late-blooming Leonard didn't begin playing organized basketball in either high school or the AAU circuit until his sophomore year. Furthermore, Leonard exhibited some qualities of a classic tweener, too small to play in the post in college yet not a consistent enough ball handler or perimeter shooter for the wing.
What San Diego State assistant coach Justin Hutson saw when he came to watch Leonard play during his junior season at Martin Luther King High was a basketball player who could help the Aztecs regardless of his position.
UCLA, USC, Arizona State and a handful of other programs eventually had also showed mild interest in Leonard, but nobody recruited him with the fervor and consistency of the Aztecs. Instead of waiting until the spring of his senior year to select a school in hopes of drumming up more interest from elite programs, Leonard committed to San Diego State in Oct. 2008 and signed the following month.
"When he decided to go to San Diego State, me and him had a conversation because I told him he might want to wait and see who else is interested," Leonard's mother, Kim Robertson, said. "He told me, 'Mom, no, I don't want to go to those other schools. They came too late.' He didn't care about the big schools. He just wanted somewhere that he could play."
Leonard validated the Aztecs' interest and rose up the recruiting rankings by earning California's Mr. Basketball award as a senior. His superb season was highlighted by an 11-point, 20-rebound, 6-block masterpiece in a section title game victory against the nation's top-ranked high school team, Santa Ana Mater Dei.
"That Mater Dei game was so much excitement," Robertson, said. "People really weren't recognizing him, but when he played that well against Mater Dei, it opened up a lot of eyes. I don't think they thought of players from the Inland Empire that way until that game, but he got on people's radar after that."
Expectations were high for Leonard at San Diego State since he arrived as coach Steve Fisher's most decorated recruit, yet if anything, he managed to exceed them as a freshman. He made up for his lack of outside shooting prowess with a quick first step to the rim, a knack for rebounding and lock-down defense buoyed by his ridiculous 7-foot wingspan.
DraftExpress.com projects Leonard as a late first-round pick next June, but as surreal as that is for a kid accustomed to playing in obscurity, that's not where his focus is at the moment. Leonard intends to lead San Diego State to a Mountain West title and a deep NCAA tournament run, a realistic possibility considering the Aztecs return the core of last season's team that lost to Tennessee in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
"Since we got to the NCAA tournament last year, we know how much harder we have to work this season to get to the later rounds," Leonard said. "Last year we set goals to win our conference tournament and go to the NCAA tournament, so to not improve on that would be a big disappointment."