January 13, 2011
SAN DIEGO -- If there's a singular aspect of Kawhi Leonard's game that sets him apart from the rest of the nation's elite college players, it's his ability to impact a game even on nights when his jump shot deserts him.
Leonard struggled through a poor shooting night against UNLV on Wednesday, yet the versatile sophomore forward still contributed in enough other ways to propel sixth-ranked San Diego State to a gritty 55-49 victory.
He defended all five positions. He showcased sound vision leading the fast break. He attacked the rim enough to get to the free throw line 10 times. And most importantly, he parlayed his long wingspan, tireless motor and freakishly large hands into a season-high 17 rebounds.
"It's very important to me to do more than just score," Leonard said. "If I'm out there very frustrated about me missing shots, my team can see that and it will bring them down. I just know there's another side of the game. I just try to go on defense, try to get a steal, help my team get a rebound, and after that the game just gets much easier."
San Diego State emulated its star's personality on Wednesday night, fending off a stiff challenge from UNLV despite a dreadful shooting night. The Aztecs made just 19 of 53 shots and 4 of 17 threes, yet they remained one of four undefeated teams in the nation by holding UNLV to a season lows in points and three-point percentage.
Even though Malcolm Thomas contributed 14 points and 16 rebounds and Billy White hit a pair of huge second-half threes, the centerpiece of the Aztecs' biggest home victory of the season was still Leonard. From a sweet assist from half court on a Thomas first-half dunk to poking the ball away from Anthony Marshall when the Rebels were threatening to make it a one-shot game late in the second half, Leonard was clearly the best player on the floor.
"Kawhi's a winner," San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said. "He's got great toughness. He's unafraid to make a play. Occasionally he tries a little too hard, but I'd much rather have that than a guy who's going to shy away when winning is on the line. We practice tomorrow at 12:45. If you come in here at 12:15, he'll be on the floor trying to get his game ready."
The biggest reason San Diego State was able to lure Leonard away from other premier West Coast programs was because the Aztecs staff discovered the Riverside, Calif. native before anybody else did.
At a time when many big-time prospects are well known by their 15th birthdays, the late-blooming Leonard flew under the radar because he didn't begin playing organized basketball in either high school or the AAU circuit until his sophomore year. Even once he became a star in high school, many schools still passed on Leonard because he exhibited so many 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.
San Diego State's faith in Leonard has resulted in two of the best seasons in school history. After leading the Aztecs in scoring and rebounding in a 2009-10 season that resulted in a Mountain West tournament championship, Leonard is averaging 15.9 points and 9.6 rebounds this year, leading San Diego State to its first-ever top 10 ranking.
The aspect of Leonard's game that has impressed his teammates most is his rebounding.
"Everybody knows his hands are huge," forward Malcolm Thomas said. "He has the biggest hands anyone's seen in years. He could be a wide receiver if he wanted to. His hands, his intensity. He's always in the gym. He's working hard and it's paid off for him."
DraftExpress.com projects Leonard as a late first-round pick next June, yet he still sees a lot of potential areas for improvement. His ball handling is still a bit suspect, his jump shot is inconsistent and he'll occasionally take contested shots too early in the clock.
The one aspect that cannot be questioned about Leonard is his effort, which never flags even if he's not scoring the way he's capable.
"From when I started playing basketball, my teammates and coaches have given me guidance," Leonard said. "They've told me that you're going to have an off night so you've just got to keep pushing through it and make the best of it."