The day Kawhi Leonard became a star

Playing at King High School in Riverside, California, Kawhi Leonard didn't get a lot of scholarship offers, with big-time college programs thinking he was a 'tweener.' (Getty)
Playing at King High School in Riverside, California, Kawhi Leonard didn't get a lot of scholarship offers, with big-time college programs thinking he was a 'tweener.' (Getty)

Tim Sweeney grew more perplexed every day.

Nobody else seemed to see what he did in the best player he ever coached, and Sweeney couldn’t figure out why.

It was fall 2008, six years before Kawhi Leonard would be named NBA Finals MVP, eight years before he’d make his first All-Star game and 11 years before he’d unveil his first signature shoe. At the time, the long-armed forward was still merely trying to prove he was good enough to play high-level college basketball.

As Leonard began his senior year at Martin Luther King High School in Riverside, California, he didn’t hold a single scholarship offer from a major-conference program. The few then-Pac-10 coaches who had showed interest treated him like a fallback option because they feared he was too short to flourish in the post but not skilled enough to thrive on the perimeter.

Leonard was just as underappreciated by media scouting services as he was by college coaches. Voters in longtime scout Frank Burlison’s prestigious “Best in the West” rankings pegged Leonard as just the 28th best high school senior in the western portion of the country, behind a whole bunch of prospects who would never sniff the NBA.

“It was really bizarre,” Sweeney said. “He was already a really good player by that time, but he was always overlooked. I remember calling some of my coaching friends in the college ranks about him, but most of them weren’t interested.”

It wasn’t until March 7, 2009, that Leonard forced the basketball world to take notice.

That was the day that King got a crack at star-laden Mater Dei, the nation’s top-ranked high school basketball team. That was the day Leonard spearheaded a memorable upset and offered a glimpse of the player he would one day become. That was the day college basketball coaches across the western seaboard took a collective gulp and wondered, “Why did we pass on this kid?”

Kawhi the gym rat

College coaches shouldn't feel too bad about underestimating Leonard. Even his first high school coach didn't fully recognize how good the gangly young forward would be.

When Leonard missed basketball tryouts his freshman year because his mother was out of town and he couldn’t get a ride, Canyon Springs High School coach Jeff Stovall refused to give him a special exception. Leonard instead played only football that year, putting his famously massive hands to use as a receiver and ball-hawking free safety.

“The coach was really strict and he didn’t know anything about Kawhi,” said Steven Mallory, Leonard’s friend and former high school teammate. “Everybody was trying to tell him about Kawhi, and he just wasn't hearing it.”

Leonard didn’t decide to focus exclusively on basketball until one of his soon-to-be mentors instilled confidence in him that he had a future in the sport. After refereeing one of Leonard’s games during his summer break from college, Pepperdine guard Marvin Lea approached the unpolished but gifted forward and told him he had a chance to someday earn a college scholarship.

That was all Leonard needed to hear to dedicate himself to basketball. He made the varsity team at Canyon Springs as a sophomore, emerging as a part-time starter but seldom getting the chance to handle the ball on the perimeter or to play a feature role.

At the end of his sophomore year, Leonard decided he was done with Canyon Springs, wanting to find a more established program that would offer him a bigger platform to be seen by college coaches and a better opportunity to develop his perimeter game. As a result, he transferred to nearby King, the Riverside basketball power where Lea won a state title in 2002.

Sweeney insists he sensed Leonard was something special soon after the quiet, introverted forward arrived at King. In one of Leonard’s first open-gym sessions the summer before his junior year, he left his new coach awestruck with his disruptiveness on defense and his ability to rebound outside his area.

“When he showed up, I was like, ‘Holy s---,’” Sweeney said. “I called my dad and I said, ‘You need to get down here right now. I think we may have a future NBA player.’ ”

The success Leonard enjoyed at King wasn’t merely a product of his talent. He also blossomed because of a tireless work ethic instilled in him years earlier by his father.

On summer days, Mark Leonard would bring his young son to the popular Compton hand-wash car wash he owned and put him to work scrubbing and detailing vehicles. Anytime Kawhi’s work didn’t meet his father’s standards, Mark would instruct him to start over again and fix it.

When Kawhi and his dad weren’t washing cars, they often could be found playing catch, running hill sprints or lifting weights near Kawhi’s mother’s Moreno Valley home. Mark’s purpose was to teach his son the value of hard work and to ingrain in him the drive he’d need to earn a college scholarship in basketball or football.

Kawhi applied his father’s lessons even after Mark was shot and killed midway through his son’s junior year of high school outside the same car wash where they spent so much time together. Basketball became Kawhi’s solace, his way of honoring his father’s memory and coping with his tragic death.

“He was never one of those kids you had to tell to get in the gym,” said Clint Parks, who trained Leonard in high school. “He’d go to the gym whether you were there or not. He’d go by himself and work on his handles or his jump shot.”

When Leonard’s family or friends couldn’t find him after school or late at night, they learned that probably meant he had snuck away to get some shots up. He and his teammates sometimes would even tape the door latches to King’s gymnasium so they could get back inside whenever they wanted.

“He’d get in late at night or on the weekends,” Sweeney said. “It wasn’t just half-ass stuff either. It was almost like there was a coach in there with him. He wasn’t shooting half-court shots or playing pick-up. He was doing rep after rep after rep, working on specific elements of his game.”

Kawhi Leonard forced basketball people to notice when he led King High School over Mater Dei, then the No. 1 ranked team in the country, on March 7, 2009. (Louis Lopez)
Kawhi Leonard forced basketball people to notice when he led King High School over Mater Dei, then the No. 1-ranked team in the country, on March 7, 2009. (Louis Lopez)

No scholarship love

All Leonard’s extra hours in the gym gradually propelled his career forward. He blossomed into one of Southern California’s best players as a junior, a defensive dynamo who also averaged 17.3 points per game by gobbling up offensive rebounds, attacking the basket off the dribble and finishing through contact at the rim.

In his junior year at King, Leonard and skilled senior center Eric Wise guided the Wolves to 32 victories and an appearance in the state semifinals in California’s top-enrollment division. The following summer, Leonard moonlighted for a pair of high-profile Southern California grassroots programs and took pride in guarding the highest-rated prospect on the opposing team, no matter the position.

Leonard’s performance vaulted him onto the radar of every top college team on the West Coast, but Pac-10 coaches feared he was too much of a tweener to be worthy of a scholarship offer. In some cases, they also didn’t take enough time to get to know the notoriously quiet, introverted Leonard, making it difficult to appreciate his unusual drive and work ethic.

UCLA viewed him as a backup option in case more highly rated small forward prospects like Tyler Honeycutt and Mike Moser went elsewhere.

“[We] were trying to figure out if he was a four man or a wing prior to his senior year in high school,” former UCLA assistant Scott Garson said. “We certainly liked him a lot. Just didn’t go on him in time.”

USC preferred Jordan Hamilton and Solomon Hill, also both coveted small forwards from the Los Angeles area.

“We just weren’t ready to pull the trigger on Kawhi after his junior year,” former USC assistant Bob Cantu said. “We weren’t sure he was a three because he didn’t shoot it well enough or handle it well enough, and we didn’t think he was a four because he was so undersized. To be honest, I felt like he was a mid-major post at the time.”

Among the only schools to fervently pursue Leonard was San Diego State, a long-underachieving program in the midst of a basketball renaissance under Steve Fisher. Leonard became San Diego State’s top recruiting target after assistant coach Justin Hutson scouted him a handful of times during his junior season at King.

Whereas other schools strung Leonard along while prioritizing more celebrated prospects, the San Diego State staff told him he’d have an opportunity to play heavy minutes at either forward spot as a freshman. The Aztecs started four seniors on their 2008-09 team, so an infusion of college-ready talent the following season was a must.

“It surprised me that Kawhi was overlooked because everybody saw him play,” Hutson said. “In their defense, he looked like a tweener, but you had to continue to watch him. In practice, you saw the way he handled the ball, the way he passed it, the way he operated on the perimeter. He had a high basketball IQ and his skill level was better than most people thought.”

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 October 2008 and signed the following month. He clicked with the coaching staff, he relished the opportunity to contribute as a freshman and he felt San Diego State offered a big enough platform.

“I just knew if you could play, somebody's always watching,” Leonard told Yahoo Sports in October 2010. “It's not the school that brings out your name. It's about you."

A star is born

Leonard rewarded San Diego State’s faith in him with a brilliant senior high school season, averaging 22.6 points and 13.1 boards and guiding King to the championship game of Southern California’s toughest playoff division. There the Wolves encountered the one team most thought to be untouchable that season, undefeated Mater Dei.

While Mater Dei’s renowned basketball program had already produced seven state titles and a handful of NBA players the previous two decades, there was talk the Monarchs’ 2008-09 squad might be their best yet. Not only had Mater Dei torn through a ferocious schedule with a 30-0 record, the Monarchs’ average margin of victory entering the King game was a ridiculous 29.1 points.

Before Stanford-bound swingman Andy Brown suffered a late-season knee injury, all five of Mater Dei’s starters were headed for marquee college programs. McDonald’s All-Americans David and Travis Wear had signed with North Carolina, point guard Gary Franklin was bound for Cal and shooting guard Tyler Lamb had committed to UCLA.

Even Brown’s replacement in Mater Dei’s starting five was hardly a pushover. Six-foot-6 Connor Hughes was a two-sport standout who went on to win a pair of men’s volleyball national titles as a star outside hitter for UC Irvine.

“Many people considered them one of the best California basketball teams ever put together, and at the time I had no argument,” Sweeney said. “We weren't expected to win that game, but the way we were playing and the way Kawhi continued to blossom into this absolute monster, I felt coming into the game that we had a great shot.”

Confident that Mater Dei would be the behemoth standing in King’s way of winning a title, Sweeney scouted the Monarchs three times in person earlier in the season and studied tape of other games. As a result, he realized King had a chance to capitalize on its superior quickness and athleticism if it could contest every 3-point attempt from Franklin and Lamb, keep the 6-foot-10 Wear twins off the offensive glass and turn missed shots into transition opportunities.

It also helped that Leonard and several teammates had no fear of Mater Dei, having been part of a King team that a year earlier led the Monarchs until the final two minutes. The Wolves entered the Southern Section title game eager to gain respect for themselves and for basketball in the blue-collar Inland Empire, which they felt went perennially overlooked compared to their counterparts in glitzier Los Angeles and Orange County.

“We weren’t going to let an Orange County team beat us,” Mallory said. “We smelled that they were soft, so Kawhi purposely said he was going to look a little scruffy with his braids and I didn’t get a haircut. This was planned. We wanted to come into the game, hit them in the chest and scare the crap out of them.”

The game went back and forth until the late third quarter when King unleashed a decisive 15-0 run that left Mater Dei staggered. Future Milwaukee Bucks forward Tony Snell and guards Taylor Cunningham and Chris Harriel each connected on 3-pointers during the surge to help King pull away for a stunning, yet convincing 71-56 victory.

Harassed by multiple defenders throughout the game, Leonard tallied a modest 11 points and didn’t score during King’s game-changing run, yet he was unquestionably the best player on the floor.

His 20 rebounds were eight more than the taller, more heralded Wear twins had combined. He also blocked six shots, altered a handful of others, tallied three steals, defended multiple positions, led fast breaks and got to the foul line.

“It was absolutely incredible how he took the Wear twins out of the game,” Sweeney said. “He limited them to one shot, got the ball and went. That killed Mater Dei. They were very big and very skilled, but they couldn’t handle our speed and athleticism.”

After just two seasons at San Diego State, Kawhi Leonard was taken with the 15th overall pick in the 2011 NBA draft. (AP)
After just two seasons at San Diego State, Kawhi Leonard was taken with the 15th overall pick in the 2011 NBA draft. (AP)

‘He’s going to be very special’

If King’s victory no longer seems like a seismic upset with the benefit of hindsight, that certainly wasn’t the case a decade ago. Few would have predicted that none of Mater Dei’s studs would stick in the NBA, that Leonard would emerge as one of the sport’s elite two-way players or that Snell would carve out a pro career as an efficient 3-and-D specialist.

For a 17-year-old Leonard, toppling Mater Dei provided validation that he was on the right path toward achieving his NBA dreams. For the college coaches across the western seaboard who passed on him, it was a stomach-turning sign that they had made a big mistake.

When Leonard led San Diego State in scoring and rebounding as a freshman and emerged as a future NBA draft pick, a handful of prominent coaches sought Sweeney out and admitted they made a mistake.

“He's the best player on the West Coast,” Sweeney recalls UCLA’s Ben Howland telling him. “‘He's going to be very special.'”

The coach that recognized Leonard’s potential the earliest also learned some valuable lessons that thereafter helped him make savvier recruiting decisions.

“As a young coach, he taught me a lot about the qualities you want to look for,” Hutson said. “Yeah, Kawhi was tall for his position and had big hands and long arms. All that’s fine and dandy. But Kawhi was a winner, basketball was very important to him and his work ethic was second to none. That doesn’t mean you’ll find another Kawhi, but it showed me the type of person you want in your program.”

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