Summer League Game 1: Where Kawhi Leonard has college flashbacks

LAS VEGAS — Kawhi Leonard has spent so much time in Sin City this month, he might as well be David Copperfield.

First, it  was a week with the U.S. Select team, scrimmaging against the All-Stars and future Hall of Famers who will make up the country’s Olympic squad in London.

This week, he’s returned  to Vegas with a different role and a different goal. He’s is the undisputed go-to guy of the Spurs’ summer league squad, which kicked off a five-game slate with an 82-76 victory over Atlanta Sunday night with Leonard as the ringleader.

Leonard had 23 points in the win, but it was the way he got them that was most notable. Handling the ball in pick-and-rolls, driving to the basket, creating for himself and occasionally for others, Leonard scored 13 of his points in the fourth quarter to help his team seal up the victory.

For a while, the second-year small forward felt like he was back at San Diego State.

“I’m getting a little feel back for what I know,” Leonard said.

During an All-Rookie campaign, Leonard got most of his points on 3-pointers and cleaning up put-backs around the rim. He got none of them that way in Sunday’s opener.

Spurs coaches arrived here with the idea of pushing Leonard past his comfort zone, putting the ball in his hands often and forcing him to create off pick and rolls. Summer league coach Jacque Vaughn called Leonard’s number often down the stretch, and occasionally ran post-up plays and pin downs for him as well.

“”It’s a big difference,” Leonard said. “I was standing up, spotting up (in the regular 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.”

The fourth quarter was a sight to behold. At one point, Leonard picked his way for seven straight points. The jewel was a stunning cross-over that left Atlanta’s Frank Hassell flailing and the Cox Pavilion crowd ooing. Leonard finished that drive with a bucket and a foul.

“This is the time to test drive a little bit, which is fun,” Vaughn said. “Get him out there and put him in position he normally doesn’t get a chance to be in. Pick and roll, posting up a little bit. See if we can see a little growth.”

Leonard passed the test Sunday, albeit against lesser competition than he will see once his second NBA season opens in October. But it was a start.

Other thoughts and impressions from Game 1:

* Cory Joseph shook off a shaky start to turn in a solid game as the Spurs’ starting point guard. He finished with 18 points — including 14 in the first half when the Spurs’ offense ran through him — to go with four assists and five rebounds. After committing two turnovers on the Spurs’ first three possessions, Joseph had none the rest of the way. “Cory was real aggressive to start out with,” shooting guard James Anderson said. “Probably the most aggressive I’ve seen him. He attacked.”

* Anderson signed up to play with the Spurs summer leaguers even though the team declined to pick up his contract option for next season. He is an unrestricted free agent, auditioning for all the other teams in attendance.

“I just came out here to show what I can do,” said Anderson, the 20th overall pick out of Oklahoma State in 2010. “It doesn’t matter which team you’re on. All the coaches are here. They’ll see what you can do on both ends.”

Anderson would like to return to the Spurs — “Who wouldn’t?”, he said — but understands that with 14 players already under contract for next season, the numbers are working against him.

* Marcus Denmon, the Spurs’ only draft pick this year (taken 59th overall), logged 11 minutes off the bench. Playing mostly shooting guard, with a little point mixed in, the Missouri alum scored three points and had two assists. He showed a nice ability to create on a drive in the first half, when he found Tyler Wilkerson for a layup just before the shot-clock horn blared.

* Though the Spurs might still be looking to add a big man after missing out on Slovenian shooter Erazem Lorbek, Alexis Ajinca took a DNP against the Hawks. With three years of NBA service time, the 7-foot-2 Ajinca is by that measure the most experienced of the Spurs’ summer leaguers. It would not be surprising to see him get some extended run before the week over.

Against the Hawks, the Spurs’ best big man was Eric Dawson, the former Sam Houston High grad who enjoyed a sip of coffee with the Spurs last season. He finished with 12 points and 13 rebounds in 30 minutes.

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