MLB

What is the Connection Between Kawhi Leonard and Stephen Strasburg?

Drafted two years apart, both in the first round of their chosen sports, Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard and Washington National pitcher Stephen Strasburg are once again linked for their excellence.

Aztecs forever

Leonard and Strasburg, who went to high school 92 miles apart, attended San Diego State University after excelling at basketball and baseball, respectively, in their senior years. While Leonard was a highly ranked player coming out of Martin Luther King High in Riverside, California, Strasburg was less polished and wasn’t accepted at his top college choice, Stanford. A few years apart, both enrolled on scholarships at SDSU and became Aztec legend.

Fast forward to 2019, and the duo made history with Leonard taking his Toronto Raptors to its first NBA championship while being named the series MVP. Some four months later, fellow Aztec Strasburg led the underdog Washington Nationals to its first World Series crown and was named MVP of the Fall classic.

Kawhi Leonard’s roots

In his freshman year at SDSU, Kawhi made a big splash leading his team in points and rebounds and a slot in the NCAA tourney. Former Aztec coach Steve Fisher knew he had something special in his 6-foot-7 Leonard who possessed an assortment of natural athletic gifts.

“What you see now, all the intangible gifts he has for the game, that all drew us to him,” Fisher told USA TODAY Sports after Toronto took the NBA title this year.

“But I tell people this repeatedly: I’ve never seen a player who works harder on his own time. The fact that he’s a pro doesn’t surprise me. But the fact that he’s this good — as a top-five (NBA) player — I don’t think anyone saw that. Except him, in that gym by himself.”

A Hall of Famer hitter mentors a future Hall of Fame pitcher

World Series champion Stephen Strasburg has one thing in common with NBA superstar Kawhi Leonard.
Stephen Strasburg at San Diego State. | Stan Liu/Icon SMI/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Entering San Diego State University as a work in progress, Stephen Strasburg went on to become the most celebrated pitcher in school history. In 2008 and 2009, the tall, slender San Diego native was a first-team All-American while setting records in ERA, wins in one season and most wins. In Strasburg’s last collegiate outing, he ended his SDSU career with a no-hitter.

Even today, Strasburg gives credit for his success to his college coach, the late Tony Gwynn, a Hall of Famer and perhaps the greatest hitter of his generation.

“He was Coach. That was the thing. It wasn’t like he was showing up every day telling the guys,” Strasburg said in an Interview with Bleacher/Report. “’Wow, I did this and that.’ You could ask him, and he would share some really cool stories.

“But at that point in his life, when I was around him on a daily basis, he was Coach. He made a very big point of developing guys’ characters first, and then hopefully they became better ballplayers on the way as well.”

Kawhi Leonard and Stephen Strasburg: First-rounders

In 2009, Stephen Strasburg was selected first in the MLB Draft by the Washington Nationals, a team he has played for since being selected. Strasburg missed one year after undergoing Tommy John surgery but has bounced back to log 112 wins. The 6-foot-5 Californian has opted out of his contract for 2020 to pursue other offers.

In 2011, Kawhi Leonard went with the 15th pick of the first round by the Indiana Pacers. Before draft night was over, Kawhi was shipped off to the San Antonio Spurs where he played up to 2018 and was part of the Spurs’ 2014 NBA championship team. San Antonio traded Leonard to the Raptors for the 2018-19 title season after which he became a free agent and signed with the Los Angeles Clippers.