Virtuous virtuoso

Forget about the NBA's MVP popularity contest: Leonard is as good as it gets

AP Photo

San Antonio forward Kawhi Leonard (2) drives around Memphis player James Ennis III on Monday night.

AP Photo San Antonio forward Kawhi Leonard (2) drives around Memphis player James Ennis III on Monday night.

He isn’t LeBron James, the most physically gifted player on the planet until Father Time says otherwise.

He isn’t Russell Westbrook, the triple-double maestro.

He isn’t James Harden, the scoring machine.

He isn’t Steph Curry, the shooting prodigy.

He isn’t Isaiah Thomas, the little engine that could.

Unlike the aforementioned players, there is very little flair to Kawhi Leonard’s game. NBA fans tend to treat him as a forgotten superstar, mainly because he doesn’t actively seek the attention that would add personality to his performance. He’s quiet and unassuming — a perfect fit for the methodical San Antonio Spurs, viewed by many to be a “boring” basketball team. He keeps interviews short and to the point. He doesn’t connect with fans through social media, and he’s passed on virtually every endorsement offer that has crossed his path.

Truth be told, Leonard just wants to play ball. That tunnel vision may penalize his popularity, but to the game’s purists, there is no better all-around talent in the league today.

And arguably no one more valuable.

Leonard’s Spurs won 61 regular-season games this year, second only to Golden State’s 67. The Warriors have three players who rank in the league’s Top 40 for Player Efficiency rating — a number which measures overall contributions on the basketball court via both surface and advanced statistics. San Antonio has just one: Leonard, at No. 3 (trailing Westbrook and a shade behind Kevin Durant).

Leonard is the poster child for advanced stats. He is the NBA’s sixth-ranked player for both offensive and defensive win shares (only Westbrook, at No. 8 and 9, respectively, was also in the Top-10 for both). He was fourth in overall win shares, seventh in box plus-minus, and seventh in VORP (value over replacement player).

In more simplistic terms, Leonard — still just 25 years old — averaged 25.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.7 steals per game. He’s the two-time defending defensive player of the year, a three-time all defensive team selection, an NBA champion and the 2014 NBA Finals MVP — all of this despite being just six seasons into his career. In the first *two* games of the Spurs’ playoff series against Memphis, Leonard scored 69 points on 20 of 28 shooting from the field and a perfect 28-for-28 effort at the free throw line.

Leonard isn’t surrounded by greatness in San Antonio. For as much credit as Westsbrook and Harden get for almost single-handedly carrying their respective teams into the playoffs, Leonard also acts as a lone star of sorts for a team that happens to be much better than Westbrook’s Thunder or Harden’s Rockets.

We’ll soon find out where the Spurs land in the championship race, and where Leonard winds up in the Most Valuable Player voting. Leonard may not have a signature modus operandi, an identifiable personality or a bombastic media presence, but he’s the total package when it comes to substance over style. Ultimately, the NBA is still about winning games and hanging banners. Leonard has already done both, but could be on the verge of further enhancing his legacy.

He may seem like a modest afterthought compared to the league’s other MVP candidates, but don’t ever underestimate Kawhi Leonard’s impact. He’s better than anyone at pretending to not be better than everyone.

Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. He may be reached afternoons and evenings at 1-800-622-6613, or by e-mail at sports@messengernews.net

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