By Mike Monroe
Spurs rookie Kawhi Leonard was the first player off Gregg Popovich’s bench in the team’s 95-82 season-opening victory over the Memphis Grizzlies on Monday night at the ATT Center, but it didn’t take him long to make an impact.
Entering the game with 6:57 left in the first quarter, Leonard’s first official statistic as an NBA player was a steal a minute after taking the court.
That his next statistic was a missed layup when he tried to turn the steal into a basket seemed somehow fitting. The Spurs gave up one of their top defenders, combo guard George Hill, in a draft-day trade because they believed Leonard could be an impact defender, rather than a ready-made scorer.
By game’s end, Leonard had taken nine shots in 13 minutes but missed seven and scored only six points. However, his energy and defense were vital as the Spurs gained their 25th victory in 36 NBA season openers.
“Kawhi is a very athletic individual,” Popovich said. “He’s got good size, good strength, and he possesses great length. It really helps him, and he’s active. He wants to be involved on the boards, running the floor and defensively. He’s not afraid to put up a shot.”
Leonard finished with six rebounds and two steals and declared his professional debut a success for the most important of reasons.
“We got our victory, and that’s what made it fun,” he said.
Admitting to pregame jitters, he attributed a pair of early turnovers to trying to play at too fast a pace.
“I was just trying to find the rhythm of an NBA game,” he said. “I was going a little bit too fast.”
His veteran teammates preached patience.
“It was his first official game,” point guard Tony Parker said. “You have to be patient.”
HOLT RELIEVED: Spurs managing general partner Peter Holt shared a hug and a laugh with Parker just before tipoff of a game played before a sellout crowd of 18,581.
“You had me scared over in France,” Parker told Holt, who served as chairman of the NBA owners labor relations committee and spent much of October and December in New York for negotiations with the players union.
Holt wished Parker luck in the opener before praising Spurs fans, who filled the arena to its capacity.
“I’ve got to tell you, that (lockout) wore me out,” he said. “I know why I never became a lawyer.
“At the end of the day, I’m just so happy we’re playing basketball again. These great fans here deserve it.”
HEISMAN WINNER IN THE HOUSE: Players from both the Baylor and Washington football teams that will play in the Valero Alamo Bowl on Thursday attended the game, including Bears quarterback Robert Griffin III, the Heisman Trophy winner.
“The Heisman was in the house?” swingman Danny Green said. “Why didn’t someone tell us? I could have run up and talked to him.”