After Kawhi Leonard's first NBA season — a rookie year during which he averaged about eight points and five rebounds per game, playing impressive defense but largely looking like a work in progress on the other end — Gregg Popovich made what seemed at the time a pretty stunning statement.
Three and a half years later, Pop's prediction has come true. Leonard has become a 20-point-per-game scorer who ranks second in the league in 3-point shooting percentage, has been named the MVP of the NBA Finals and the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year, and was just voted an All-Star starter for the first time. This past summer, the Spurs rewarded Leonard's development into one of the NBA's very best players with a five-year, $94 million maximum contract that entrenched him as the leader of the Spurs' next era. As the great Lee Jenkins lays out in a new Sports Illustrated cover story, though, becoming very rich hasn't steered Kawhi off his preferred path as a responsible and cost-conscious consumer:
When the Spurs acquired Leonard out of [San Diego State University] in 2011, through a draft-day trade with the Pacers, they flew him to San Antonio for a meeting with coach Gregg Popovich. "He was as serious as a heart attack," Popovich recalls. Needless to say, they hit it off, and Leonard slid comfortably into the Spurs' hardwood monastery.
A lot has changed for Leonard since that conversation with Pop [...] but a lot hasn't. Leonard spends his summers in a two-bedroom apartment in San Diego, where he hangs a mini hoop over one door so he can play 21 against [his high-school friend Jeremy] Castleberry [who now works in the Spurs video department]. He carries a basketball in his backpack even when he isn't going to the gym. He often drives a rehabbed '97 Chevy Tahoe, nicknamed Gas Guzzler, which he drove across Southern California's Inland Empire as a teenager. "It runs," Leonard explains, "and it's paid off."
He is the only star still rocking cornrows, an outdated tribute to Carmelo Anthony, and he shrugs when friends claim he'd expand his endorsement portfolio if he shaved the braids. He is happy to sponsor Wingstop, which sends him coupons for free wings, so he can feed his Mango Habanero addiction. This winter, after his $94 million contract kicked in, he panicked when he lost his coupons. Wingstop generously replenished his supply.
That's a wise move by Wingstop. After all, while the famously taciturn Leonard isn't a super vocal brand ambassador — none of the four tweets that Kawhi has written mention the chicken-wing shop, though he does follow them, which is nice — he is a committed one; when a group of 25 Spurs fans from China visited San Antonio last year, one of their first trips "was to Wingstop, because Kawhi Leonard endorses the restaurant." Surely, such exposure to international markets is worth an extra few discounts on classic or boneless wings, and maybe some freebie fresh-cut fries.
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As to the car: first off, "It runs and it's paid off" is about as perfectly Spursy an explanation for sticking with a nearly 20-year-old truck as I can think of. (With that max deal kicking in, it's now also a pretty apt descriptor for the 25-year-old forward.) That said, it is worth noting that Leonard does own a flashier whip; he just hardly ever uses it, as Mark Zeigler of the San Diego Union-Tribune wrote back in 2014:
Leonard arrived in San Antonio with the silver Chevy Malibu he drove in college, and friends and family finally convinced him that he needed to drive something more, ahem, befitting of an NBA player. So he bought the Porsche.
He drives it to games at San Antonio’s AT&T Center. He drives the Malibu everywhere else.
“It’s paid off,” Leonard said. “I don’t have a car note on it. It’s good on gas. It’s a good commuter car if you don’t want to drive your luxury car.”
And, lest you think one of the reporters cited here has lost the plot, Kawhi did make an intra-Chevy switch last season, as Zeigler wrote this summer after Leonard signed his max deal:
He finally got rid of the silver Chevy Malibu that he had at San Diego State and took with him to San Antonio … and replaced it with his first car, a ’97 Chevy Tahoe that was sitting in his grandmother’s driveway and he had fixed up.
“It definitely brings back memories once you start it up and drive it,” Leonard says.
I don't know how much time Kawhi spent celebrating his first All-Star selection, and I don't know how much time he spent weighing the pros and cons of shifting from a more fuel-efficient model to the sentimental-value-packed "Gas Guzzler." I'm just saying that, based on everything we know about the Spurs' two-way leader — which, even after Jenkins' great story, still ain't all that much — it wouldn't surprise me in the least if the running time on the latter doubled the former. It would be par for the course for a player so committed to offseason workouts that he all but refused to party with the Larry O'Brien Trophy after the 2014 Finals, so focused on the final outcome that he barely celebrates game-winning shots, and whose first quote in a freaking Sports Illustrated cover story is, "I don't like to bring attention to myself. I don't like to make a scene."
Pop recently explained that, above all else, the Spurs value players (and people) "that have gotten over themselves." A guy who'd rather rehab a truck old enough to vote than drive his Porsche more often, and who only shows emotion when he's misplaced his fast-casual dining coupons, seems like a pretty perfect fit ... and if he can guard the best player on every opposing team while producing on par with Russell Westbrook and LeBron James and knocking down 3s at the same clip as Stephen Curry, well, so much the better.
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