Spurs’ Leonard crams for NBA test

A month ago, Spurs rookie Kawhi Leonard was sitting in the bleachers at San Diego State’s Viejas Arena, watching his former teammates beat Southern Utah in their season opener.

He only wished it felt like he had never left.

“The lockout was tough, not just on me but on every rookie,” Leonard said. “I was ready to get started in the NBA.”

After 150 days of labor limbo, Leonard’s education as an NBA player began, finally, with the opening of training camp last week.

Between now and the Spurs’ Dec. 26 regular-season opener against Memphis, the 20-year-old small forward will be asked to cram nearly six months of NBA 101 into a little more than two weeks.

Obtained in a draft-night trade that sent popular guard George Hill to Indiana, Leonard — taken 15th overall — arrives as the Spurs’ highest-drafted rookie since Tim Duncan went No. 1 in 1997.

Though coach Gregg Popovich has sought to tamp down expectations for Leonard, the Spurs clearly did not part with a key rotation piece like Hill to bring in a player they did not think could contribute soon.

“Kawhi is what we expected, in that we knew he was a hard worker; that he was a committed player; that he responded well defensively, and rebounding-wise,” Popovich said. “Already he’s a little more explosive than we expected — the stops and starts, that sort of thing.”

Even without the benefit of summer league, offseason workouts with the Spurs’ player development coaches or even a full training camp, Leonard — 6-foot-7 with catcher’s mitt hands — can be expected to quickly work his way into the team’s muddled small-forward mix.

For now, 31-year-old Richard Jefferson is the apparent starter, with the Spurs still chasing at least one veteran — Washington’s Josh Howard — on the free-agent market.

In terms of learning curve, Leonard already is five days ahead of fellow first-rounder Cory Joseph, the Texas point guard the Spurs took 29th. A native Canadian, Joseph has yet to practice while clearing up immigration red tape.

With the Spurs hoping to get younger and more athletic — not to mention more defensive-minded — on the wing, Leonard should find a role relatively quickly.

“He has a knack for the ball, you can already see it,” said second-year guard James Anderson, who trained with Leonard in Las Vegas during the lockout. “His defensive tools will help us out. His youth, getting out and running the floor, it will bring us more firepower.”

Spurs rookie Kawhi Leonard (center) tosses the ball to Danny Green (left) as DeJuan Blair looks on at a recent Spurs practice. (Kin Man Hui / kmhui@express-news.net)

In two seasons at San Diego State, Leonard logged 40 double-doubles, second in school history behind Michael Cage. As a sophomore last season, he averaged 15.5 points and 10.6 rebounds as a second-team All-American.

The most daunting obstacle standing between Leonard and early playing time is the calendar.

One week after draft day, the NBA locked out its players. For the first five months of his professional career, Leonard couldn’t contact his new coaches, get into his new locker room or draw a paycheck. If he ever regretted his decision to leave school early for a lockout, Leonard would never admit it.

“I got drafted 15,” he said. “That was my dream growing up.”

In place of a proper offseason with Spurs coaches, Leonard worked out with future teammates such as Anderson and Jefferson, grilling them on the basics of the playbook. He also watched film of Spurs games, hoping to pick up pointers by osmosis.

“I’m just trying to learn the offense so once I get in the game, I won’t be clueless,” Leonard said.

His NBA career delayed for 150 days, Leonard is glad to at last be on the court for his first training camp. His college career is over, but for Leonard, the education is just beginning.

“I watched these guys growing up, and now I’m on the court with them,” Leonard said. “I just try to have fun and open my eyes and ears so I can learn a lot.”

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