By Jeff McDonald
Kawhi Leonard can’t say for certain if he was watching the NBA draft that night in 1997, when the Spurs made Tim Duncan the No. 1 overall pick and set the stage for a four-championship dynasty.
Back then, Leonard wasn’t allowed to stay up that late.
“I was 6 years old,” Leonard said.
On another June night some 14 years later, the Spurs made Leonard their highest-drafted rookie since Duncan, sending popular guard George Hill to Indiana in a trade that brought, among other baubles, the player the Pacers had taken with the 15th pick.
Stakes are high for Leonard, a 20-year-old small forward fresh off two college seasons at San Diego State. They are equally as high for the Spurs, who would not have gambled a key rotation piece such as Hill to acquire a player they did not think could readily contribute.
“I’m just happy they wanted me on their team,” Leonard said.
Though still the team of Duncan (35), Manu Ginobili (34) and Tony Parker (29), if the Spurs are to beat the odds and get back to the NBA mountaintop this season, they will rely on younger legs to help carry them.
Fresh off a paradoxical campaign in which they finished with the best record in the Western Conference (61-21), then were promptly ushered from the playoffs in the first round by Memphis, the Spurs have dipped their roster in the Fountain of Youth, hoping for a reboot.
Leonard’s arrival marks another chapter in a silver-and-black sea change that has been ongoing since the Spurs’ most recent NBA championship in 2007.
The 2007-08 roster — which coach Gregg Popovich once laughingly derided as “older than dirt” — featured Robert Horry (37), Brent Barry (36), Bruce Bowen (36) and Michael Finley (34).
This season, in addition to Leonard, the Spurs expect significant contributions from each of their previous two top draft picks, 22-year-olds James Anderson and DeJuan Blair, as well as from 26-year-old center Tiago Splitter and 27-year-old reserve guard Gary Neal.
In a lockout-condensed, 66-game season, in which back-to-backs are plentiful and rest for old, tired bodies is not, young depth will be crucial now more than ever.
“It’s probably mandatory,” Popovich said. “Those games — five in six nights and three in a row, that sort of thing — is not going to be conducive to playing older players too many minutes.”
In short order, the Spurs’ roster has gone from too old to go out to the club to young enough to be carded when they get there. Their recipe for success this season is simple, yet difficult.
They need Leonard, a 6-foot-7 defensive menace and rebounding machine, to defy the normal rookie learning curve in a short training camp. They need Anderson, the 2010 Big 12 Player of the Year at Oklahoma State, to stay on the floor after injuries short-circuited his rookie year.
They need Splitter to rise to a bigger role and play more like the Spanish League MVP he once was. They need the 6-7 Blair to sprout a couple inches, or at least not grow a couple pant sizes.
They need Neal to pick up where he left off after an All-Rookie campaign.
If all that happens, the no-longer-older-than-dirt Spurs can expect to once again be a force in the Western Conference.
“This was always a veteran team,” Blair said. “Now we’ve gone young, and everybody is running around like a chicken with their head cut off.”
Parker, the only member of the Spurs’ so-called Big Three still shy of the big 3-0, compares the team’s situation now to the early 2000s, when he and Ginobili arrived to inject life into an aging roster.
In 2002-03, Ginobili’s rookie season, the Spurs won their second championship.
“It’s a little bit like when I came or Manu came, we had to contribute right away,” Parker said. “All of our young guys this season have to do the same thing.”
With the influx of youth is sure to come growing pains.
Ginobili recalls his inaugural NBA season, when it seemed as if more of his fancy passes wound up in the seats than his teammates’ hands.
“I’ve always said making mistakes is huge,” Ginobili said. “In my first two seasons, Pop wanted to kill me. But it helped me to understand the game.”
How long will Popovich be able to tolerate the mistakes of youth? The answer may be irrelevant.
The Spurs’ young bucks will play this season, and play a lot, because there is no other alternative.
TURNING BACK TIME
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich referred to the team that followed his last NBA championship in 2007 as “older than dirt.” It brought about the desired laughter, and that 2007-08 team made the Western Conference finals.
But since then, Popovich and the Spurs’ front office have been busy securing fresh legs in hopes of getting younger. Here’s a look at the 13 guys who played and lost to the Lakers in five games in 2008 and the ones who step up Monday to face the Grizzlies in the 2011-12 season opener.
Source: Douglas Pils, Express-News research