The first thing you learn about Kawhi Leonard when you watch a Spurs game on national TV is that he has giant hands. Kawhi's playing tight defense on a good scorer? "Look at those hands." Kawhi's dunking over the tall defender? "Those hands!" Kawhi's snatching a ball out of the passing lane? "Those hands are such an advantage."
Sure. They are. But at this point, they receive an undue level of credit. How about giving Kawhi himself the credit for being a determined defender, a fearless attacker, a whipsmart theft artist? It's almost as if some believe Kawhi's hands are sentient, that they run him and not vice versa.
But the more troubling issue when it comes to talking about Kawhi is the outsized credit the Spurs organization gets for his quick development and massive impact.
This manifests in a few different ways. Any time you lament that NBA GMs somehow let such a great prospect fall to an already stacked team in a bad draft, you get the #WellActually crowd insisting that Kawhi wouldn't have been a great prospect on most other teams. This line of argument is that while Kawhi is marvelous as a Spur, his development would have been stunted with most lottery franchises.
Environment does matter; it's impossible to argue otherwise. But the idea that Kawhi would be a scrub or not worthy of a lottery pick on, say, the Kings, Cavaliers or Bucks, is demeaning to Kawhi's own role in his development. Nineteen-year-olds are not exactly lumps of clay. They have agency and responsibility. It's not as if the Spurs drafted Kawhi's body, erased his mind and soul and injected him with some Spur Serum that made him KAWHI. They drafted an actual person with good attributes (both physical and mental) and a few raw skills (shooting, namely), gave him tools to sharpen up those skills and get the most out of his gifts and unleashed him on the court.
The story of Kawhi is not a story about how the Spurs can turn anyone into an NBA star. The story of Kawhi is the story of how a young player with the right tools can fully dedicate himself to being totally awesome despite being ranked No. 48 in his high school class and going No. 15 in a crummy draft.
Gregg Popovich, R.C. Buford and the entire Spurs staff deserve credit for building, maintaining and constantly reiterating a championship-caliber team. But it's disconcerting to see them credited for almost everything that goes right for the franchise. Part of the reason Tim Duncan is criminally underrated as one of the all-time greats is because he is inextricably tied to a franchise with a domineering coach. So often the Pop-Duncan relationship is framed as Tim being the league's most coachable superstar. As if Tim Duncan would be chicken scratch without the aggressive influence of Pop.
Coachability is not what made Tim Duncan the greatest power forward ever.— those qualities made Duncan great. Tim Duncan doing track work in triple-digit weather during a lockout made him great.brain, his touch, his dedication to being excellent, his motivation to adapt
This isn't to say that coachability isn't also a powerful attribute. Learning from those who have come before is important in every line of work. But if we're divvying up credit for Duncan's legendary career, Pop gets a relatively thin slice of the pie. Duncan himself is almost exclusively responsible for Duncan's greatness.
So it goes with Kawhi, who is considered to be a new Duncan in terms of his willingness to take whatever Pop dishes. He's the next Coachable Star, as if that is the most impressive thing about him. Even in Adrian Wojnarowski's masterfully written ode to Kawhi — really, read it — there's evidence that like Duncan, Leonard will share the credit for his own excellence with the folks who pay him. The Spurs had three days with Kawhi between the 2011 draft and the start of the lockout. Woj's piece spends three paragraphs on the three days of shot reconstruction executed by Spurs shooting coach Chip Engelland and one sentence on the five months of subsequent shooting work Kawhi put in.
Woj certainly didn't mean to discount Kawhi's effort, and he loads the praise on the player himself throughout the piece. Likewise, there's no intent by anyone hailing the Spurs to take credit away from the players who put in the work. When A+ San Antonio beat writer Jeff McDonald opens his game story with a nod to Popovich for motivating Kawhi to have a big Game 3, he isn't doing it to deflate Leonard's own agency in the matter. This isn't deliberate by any means.
But it's pervasive. When NBA players get praised, their willingness to heed authority get way too much credit at the expense of the fire, effort and smarts of the player himself.
Kawhi didn't have a stunning Game 3 just because Pop told him to. Kawhi had a stunning Game 3 because he's put in the work his entire career to prepare himself for these moments, and because he played his tail off. Kawhi isn't a quality shooter because of three days with Chip Engelland. He's a quality shooter because he leveraged that instruction and subsequent post-lockout skill-building with hours and hours in the gym firing up jumpers.
No one is consciously depriving Kawhi the credit he deserves, but the popular narrative is shortchanging him. We should consider how we talk about him and the Spurs' influence on him before, like Duncan, he becomes a perennially underrated star.
As for Kawhi's Hands, who are already on their way to the Hall of Fame: that's part and parcel with the long-running trope surrounding genes, grit and all of that. Never mind that the young defensive wizard is relentless, putting himself in position to succeed on the court with hard work and fierce commitment off the court. Never mind that he finds the focus and pride within himself to challenge the world's greatest player at the end of a long, grinding game at the end of a long, grinding season. By all means, let's talk about his massive mitts some more.
No. That's not the determining factor in what makes Kawhi great. DNA matters, but not more than what you do with it. Give Kawhi the credit he deserves for getting here and making the most of his NBA career.