Not Steph Curry, not LeBron, not KD.
The hottest commodity in basketball right now is Toronto Raptors star Kawhi Leonard who honors Jesus and has single-handedly carried his team to unpredicted wins, first in Game 7 against the Philadelphia 76ers to enter the Eastern Conference, then again last night to upset the Warriors in Game 1 of the finals.
“Last year was a very down year for me (he was injured); I was going through a lot,” says Kwahi, whose buzzer beater to beat the 76ers in Game 7 is now legend. “And you know, God is good! I prayed every day and ended up getting healthy, now I’m able to play basketball. You could just see what He does for you.”
Kawhi is dropping jaws both on offense and on defense. He averaged 35-point games against Philadelphia. He locked down Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks to reverse a 0-2 game deficit to secure the Eastern Conference.
“Leonard is killing dudes in isolation (like Harden), pounding and rocking the basketball (like Harden) before blowing past defenders or hitting step-back threes (like Harden),” Jesse Washington crows on The Undefeated.
Up until last night, the idea that the Golden State Warriors would sweep the finals — again — was thought to be as pre-determined as the Book of Revelations. It was sure to be boring, and only diehard fans and somnambulists who like eye-glazing as they observe the inevitable even bothered to tune in.
But Leonard and the on-fire Raptors suddenly woke up the soporific middle American who only turns on the game if there actually is going to be a game. Now, the final is promising to be interesting.
The talent-rich Warriors knew they had to double-team and even triple-team Kawhi to win. Stymie the star and blitz to victory. It’s been their not-so-secret strategy, and it has worked against James Harden and Damian Lillard.
It didn’t work last night.
The Marvel’s Avengers of the NBA got blindsided by the no-names of the Raptors. Harassed at every turn, Leonard passed the ball to his teammates, who materialized superstar performance. Pascal Siakim, notorious for poor shooting, transformed suddenly into a marksman, hooping 32 points to lead his team to a 118-109 thrashing.
Will the Golden State league hegemony be broken?
Kawhi Anthony Leonard was born in Los Angeles in 1991. He was the youngest of five, and all his siblings were girls. His parents divorced and he lived with his dad. Then his father, Mark Leonard, was shot and killed in a Compton car wash he owned in 2008 when Kawhi was 16. It appears the seriousness of life is a lesson Kawhi learned from this tragedy.
At some point, Kawhi gave his heart to Jesus (he shuns press interviews and stays off social media, so many details of his life remain largely unknown). He was inspired by Michael Jordan’s documentary “Come Fly With Me.” He grew up in Moreno Valley and played for Martin Luther King High School in Riverside. The day after his dad was killed, he scored 17 points. The team won. After the game, he went over to his mother and cried on her shoulder, according to NBA Insider.
Kawhi played for San Diego State University only because they were the first to recruit him. By the time anyone came around inquiring about his services, he had already committed and wouldn’t go back on his word. He played two seasons before going into the NBA draft.
From 2011-18 he played for the San Antonio Spurs. He had a $93 million contract but never acted like it. He drove a 2008 Chevy Malibu. His family pressured him to “celebrate” his mind-boggling salary, so he got a Porsche, which he rarely drives. He spent his summers in a two-bedroom apartment in San Diego. His main wheels now is a Chevy Tahoe.
“My motivation wasn’t really to get a $95 million contract, you know? I’m not out here just for the money. I want to be a great player. I don’t feel anything changed. I already had money and security,” Kawhi told the San Diego Union Tribune in 2015. “You definitely see a difference in some guys’ games when they do get paid. I’m trying to make sure I’m not that player.”
With Kawhi, the Spurs won an NBA final. But Kawhi got injured and missed the entire 2017 season and was traded by the Spurs for DeMar DeRozan in 2018.
When he came to the Raptors, he joined a team that had never won a championship. To say Kawhi carried the team is an understatement. He averaged 27 points, three assists, seven rebounds and two steals per game. He’s a beast defender with the nickname “the Klaw” for his oversized hands that swipe and swat balls away.
Kawhi is coming up big with player comparisons. Steph Curry doesn’t even bother to try to defend the best players; Kawhi puts them in handcuffs.
LeBron had a better team to work with when he came to the Lakers and didn’t even make the playoffs. As for comparisons to Kevin Durant, KD shines in part because the other superstars on his team make him look good. Kawhi had no supporting cast.
Marcus Scribner studies at the Lighthouse Christian Academy on the west side of Los Angeles.