Leonard’s long road reaches S.A.

By Jeff McDonald

In basketball, the difference between winning or losing can often come down to a single centimeter. That’s what Kawhi Leonard’s college coach always told him.

It could be a loose ball, a coin-flip rebound, a tip-in, a charge taken, a shot denied.

“You can’t take any play off,” said Leonard, the Spurs’ soon-to-be rookie forward. “Getting that loose ball could be the play that helps us win the game.”

The every-possession-counts approach that coach Steve Fisher preached at San Diego State helped transform Leonard from under-recruited high school prospect from Riverside, Calif., into one of the country’s best college players in two short years.

It helped Leonard transform SDSU from college basketball wasteland into a top-five NCAA program.

Thursday, it helped make Leonard the 15th pick in the NBA draft, completing a journey from the schoolyards of Southern California that had been potholed with hardship and tragedy.

In the time it took Leonard to finish shaking commissioner David Stern’s hand, he learned something else about the vagaries of life and sport.

Just as a few centimeters can change a basketball game, a few seconds can change a life.

Leonard, 19, walked up the stage at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., an Indiana Pacer. He came down a San Antonio Spur.

The draft-night trade sent popular guard George Hill home to Indiana, and essentially made Leonard — a 6-foot-7 small forward with a race car’s motor and tennis racket hands — the Spurs’ highest draft choice since Tim Duncan went first overall in 1997.

On Saturday, Leonard sat at an interview table inside the Spurs’ practice facility, sandwiched between general manager R.C. Buford and former Texas point guard Cory Joseph, the team’s other 19-year-old first-rounder.

“I’m happy to be in an organization that really wants me,” Leonard said.

Though still only a teenager, Leonard has learned the hard way not to take life for granted.

As a high school freshman in Moreno Valley, Calif., Leonard didn’t play basketball because he couldn’t find a ride to tryouts. In 2008, Leonard’s father, Mark, was shot and killed at the Los Angeles carwash where he worked, and where young Kawhi had spent countless afternoons helping scrub exteriors.

For Leonard, it was a brutish lesson in how the world can change in an instant. Fast forward to Saturday morning in San Antonio.

“I woke up on an NBA team,” Leonard said.

From the day Leonard arrived at SDSU, Fisher knew his stay would not be long.

“When he first came to us, I knew he’d be an NBA player,” Fisher said. “He’s NBA tough, and he has NBA skill.”

Fisher should know. At Michigan, he coached Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard and Glen Rice.

Buford said the Spurs coveted Leonard from the early stages of draft preparation. He was one of the prospects they interviewed at the Chicago combine in May, though they did not work him out privately.

Heading into the draft, the Spurs knew they would trade up from No. 29 to take Leonard if they could.

“He’s a multi-skilled type player who has good size and good length and good strength,” Buford said. “As we saw some of the teams we were going to have to face in the future, size at that position wasn’t one of our strengths. I think he addresses that issue.”

Leonard averaged 15.5 points and 10.6 rebounds as a sophomore last season at SDSU, where he dabbled at all five positions. He posted 40 career double-doubles, second in school history to Michael Cage, who went on to enjoy a 15-season NBA career.

Those numbers mean little to the Spurs. More important are the school-record 34 wins Leonard helped the Aztecs accrue, as well as his leading role in the school’s run to the NCAA Sweet 16.

Leonard’s forte is defense and rebounding, a skill set that dovetails with Spurs coach Gregg Popovich’s stated goal of restoring the team’s defensive edge.

“It’s not like they’re going to have to tell me to play defense,” Leonard said. “I already take pride in it.”

Leonard is blessed with catchers’ mitts on the end of his arms, and those hands have helped him become, in Fisher’s words, “the best rebounder I’ve ever coached.” They also might have impaired his shooting ability — he hit just 25 percent of his 3-pointers in college.

If Leonard’s shooting stroke can be corrected, it will be, Fisher says.

“He’s a gym rat’s gym rat,” Fisher said. “He’ll be there until you turn the lights off and tell him to leave. In that respect, he’s already a pro.”

What kind of impact Leonard might make as a rookie remains to be seen. In the nightly battle over centimeters, however, Fisher has learned never to count him out.

“He’s going to have a long, long NBA career,” Fisher said. “How good? I don’t know. But I’m not going to be surprised if he plays in the league for 10 or 15 years.”

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