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Rockets coach Ime Udoka sees elements of young Kawhi Leonard in Tari Eason

For several seasons in the 2010s, Ime Udoka was an assistant coach in San Antonio on the staff of legendary head coach Gregg Popovich.

When those Spurs won their fifth and final NBA title of the Tim Duncan era in 2014, one of the promising young talents was forward Kawhi Leonard, who has since developed into a superstar.

Now a head coach himself in Houston, Udoka says a player on his 2023-24 Rockets reminds him of a younger version of Leonard.

Tari Eason, drafted No. 17 overall in the 2022 first round, entered the NBA known largely known for his defensive potential. It’s somewhat reminiscent of Leonard, who — after falling to No. 15 in the 2011 draft — wasn’t initially viewed as an elite prospect due to questions about his upside on offense. But Leonard eventually broke through, and Eason would love follow a similar template.

Via courtside reporter Vanessa Richardson of Space City Home Network, the team’s regional television broadcast partner, Udoka said this regarding Eason and his impact on the Rockets:

He has a unique ability to impact games. I think he’s No. 1 on our team, from a statistical standpoint, in how he impacts games and winning, when he’s playing.

He does it in his own way. He’s a guy that you don’t even have to call a play for. He’s going to impact the game on the defensive end, and offensively, he’s shooting the ball well. He’s learning to grow in those areas. Then the steals, and the loose balls and the 50/50 balls, all the things he comes up with are very unique. He’ll get a crazy one every game that makes you kind of shake your head.

I had a young Kawhi Leonard, and (Tari) is the closest thing that reminds me of what Kawhi did back in the day … just in taking balls, and getting ones that other guys don’t get. Those are plays that ignite the team, give us a bunch of energy, and it gets him going, as well.

In 22 games this season, Eason is averaging 9.8 points (46.6% FG, 36.0% on 3-pointers), 7 rebounds and 1.4 steals in 21.8 minutes. He’s been on a slight minutes limitation due to a stress reaction suffered in his left leg during the 2023-24 preseason, and he’s missed several games in recent days due to the lingering issue.

The complete interview can be viewed below.

Story originally appeared on Rockets Wire