Spurs turn keys over to Leonard this summer

Kawhi Leonard of the Spurs is doing his best to expand his game during the Las Vegas summer league. TOM REEL / EXPRESS-NEWS

LAS VEGAS — For Kawhi Leonard, it didn’t take long for the memories to come flooding back Tuesday.

Out the locker-room door, past the framed photos of UNLV greats, hang a right down the tunnel, and suddenly he was back on the floor at Thomas Mack Arena, reliving a moment from his past.

As an All-American at San Diego State, Leonard played in Las Vegas on numerous occasions, most recently in the Mountain West conference tournament his Aztecs won in 2011.

“Walking through the tunnel and looking at those pictures brought some memories back,” said Leonard, now a second-year small forward and the undisputed leader of the Spurs’ summer-league team.

Then, Leonard did something seldom seen during his All-Rookie first season in the NBA.

He smiled.

The goal for Leonard this week has been to channel his inner Aztec. So far, so good.

Handed the reins of the Spurs’ summer squad and instructed to be The Man, the newly turned 21-year-old has responded by averaging 25 points in the first two games.

Leonard had 27 in Tuesday’s 92-81 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers, using an array of scoring moves last seen at San Diego State.

“This is the time to test drive a little bit,” summer league coach Jacque Vaughn said. “Get him out there and put him in positions he normally doesn’t get a chance to be in, and see if we can see a little growth.”

That means a steady diet of pick-and-rolls, with Leonard as the trigger man. It means pulling up and shooting off screens. Occasionally over the past two games, Vaughn has called Leonard’s number in the block, with post-ups and pin-downs.

None of that happened in the regular season, when Leonard found his way to 7.9 points per game without the Spurs ever calling a play for him.

“It’s a big difference,” Leonard said. “I was standing up, spotting up (during the season). I’m learning to shoot off the dribble, coming off ball screens. I’m trying to get my ball handling better. Also, I’ve got to learn how to pass. I’ve been working on all that.”

It is obvious that Leonard’s growth has been the Spurs’ pet project in Las Vegas. On more than one occasion, coach Gregg Popovich — usually content to sit back and observe summer league proceedings — could be seen engaged in a lengthy one-on-one with Leonard.

“We want him to rebound it and push it up the floor himself,” Popovich said. “We want to get it thrown ahead to him and have him go attack the rim. We want to put him in pick-and-rolls and let him make decisions, so he expands his game.

“He’s going to be a good one. We don’t want him to just be a spot-up shooter in the corner.”

That’s good to hear, Leonard said.

“I don’t want to be a stand-in-the-corner guy my whole career,” he added. “I’d like to take control of the game, and be a focal point to help my team win.”

During one breathless stretch of the first half Tuesday, Leonard unpacked his entire bag of tricks.

He took his man off the dribble, from midcourt line to rim. He grabbed a rebound at one end and took the ball 90 feet for a finger roll at the other.

When Leonard crossed over a pick late in the first half and rose to drill a contested 3-pointer near the top of the arc, even his summer-league teammates were impressed.

“He kind of showed everybody a little bit of what he can do,” guard James Anderson said.

There’s no telling how many of these new skills Leonard might bring with him back to San Antonio.

Certainly, he’ll see fewer chances to handle the ball once he rejoins a backcourt with Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili in it.

For now, Leonard is enjoying his time in Vegas, where the good memories run deep and he is once again the go-to guy.

By pulling a page from his past, Leonard is preparing for his future.

No amnesty for Spurs: The Spurs have opted not to exercise their so-called “amnesty” provision for this season.

Per the latest collective bargaining agreement of last December, teams are allowed to waive one player who was on their roster last summer, without his salary counting against the cap.

Teams that did not use it for last season faced a Tuesday deadline to trigger it for 2012-13. Those teams, like the Spurs, who have yet to use the amnesty provision can roll it over throughout the life of the CBA.


Twitter: @JMcDonald_SAEN

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