Unraveling the Kawhi Leonard mystery

LAS VEGAS — There is perhaps no bigger mystery surrounding the Spurs’ roster-in-progress right now than Kawhi Leonard.

The Spurs acquired the former San Diego State star on draft night, using Gregg Popovich favorite George Hill as bait to lure the 15th pick away from Indiana. They had Leonard in town for a week, then bid goodbye to him July 1 when the league locked out the players. By executive order of commissioner David Stern, Spurs coaches and other team personnel have seen neither hide nor hair of their prized rookie since.

While Spurs fans (and, it is assumed, coaches) have been able to watch other pieces of that draft-day package play in international competition this summer — point guard Cory Joseph for Canada, big man Davis Bertans for Latvia and shooting guard Adam Hanga for Hungary — Leonard remains an off-the-grid enigma.

Leonard is the Spurs’ highest draft pick since taking Tim Duncan first overall in1997, and yet he remains something of an unknown.

For a scouting report on Leonard, how he is progressing and what he might contribute to the Spurs if and when the 2011-2012 season commences, we went to James Anderson, the second-year guard who has been training with his new teammate off and on since draft day.

Anderson’s take on Leonard, a the 6-foot-7 small forward: ”He’ll definitely add more energy and youth to our team. He has a lot of defensive skills. He can also get out and run the floor, and help us bring in more rebounds. He’ll help us out on both ends.”

Leonard’s offensive game remains a work in progress, according to those who have seen him this summer, but he did use a rebuilt shooting stroke to hit two of the four 3-pointers he attempted in a limited engagement at the Impact Basketball Competitive Training series in Las Vegas. Then, like Bigfoot, he disappeared into the mist (or home to San Diego) before most of the gathered media had descended on Sin City.

Joe Abunassar, a former college assistant coach turned trainer who has been working with Leonard at Impact Basketball since before the draft, says his protege is improving through playing.

“Kawhi’s an energy guy, very athletic,” Abunassar said. “His offensive game is constantly improving. He’s going to take some time to get used to the NBA system, but he’s going to be fine.”

Anderson says Leonard’s most readily recognizable NBA skill might be his rebounding. In two seasons at San Diego State, Leonard averaged 10.2 rebounds to go with 14.1 points, logged 40 double-doubles in 70 games, and had coach Steve Fisher calling him one of the most natural rebounding talents he’s ever had.

“He has a knack for the ball, you can already see it,” Anderson said. “His defensive tools will help us out. His youth, getting out and running the floor, it will bring us more firepower.”

What Leonard could use now is a training camp. By all accounts, Leonard has done well keeping in shape and improving individually during the lockout. None of that, however, is any substitute for the one-on-one indoctrination he could be receiving from Spurs coaches, if not for the labor impasse.

“We can teach him the general principles, but we’re not the Spurs’ coaching staff,” Abunassar said. “I think he can develop individually and get more confidence, but it’s going to take team practices to get him mentally ready to play.”

Eventually, the lockout will end and the Spurs’ prized draft pick will be allowed into the team’s training facility. Only then will Spurs coaches be able to judge for themselves how far Leonard has come.

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