While he’s become one of basketball’s top talents, Kawhi Leonard wasn’t always seen as a star. The forward always possessed the physical tools necessary to succeed, but scouts weren’t quite sure how he’d fit into an NBA lineup. Kawhi, however, never doubted his own abilities.
Leonard’s confidence didn’t begin at San Diego State, where he made headlines with his raw athleticism. It didn’t date back to high school, where he dominated the local competition. It first materialized during a childhood doctor’s appointment, so the young forward told everyone present that he would become an NBA player.
Kawhi Leonard told his childhood doctor that he’d make it to the NBA and then followed through
As the classic TV show explained, kids say the darndest things. While he might be soft-spoken now, a young Kawhi was no exception to that rule.
“He was the baby of the family, minded by four older sisters, who stood in long lines to buy his Air Jordans and prophesied in home videos his athletic feats,” Lee Jenkins explained in a Sports Illustrated feature. “At seven, Kawhi interrupted an annual physical to inform his pediatrician that he planned to play in the NBA. ‘Do you know how many kids come in this office and say that?’ the doctor smirked.”
Leonard wasn’t joking, though. As he grew up, his basketball talent began to speak for itself. In high school, he outworked the competition en route to the California Mr. Basketball Title. Despite interest from USC and UCLA, he eventually took his talents to San Diego State. In fittingly humble fashion, Kawhi stayed loyal to the Aztecs because they were the first school to recruit him.
In college, the forward only continued to shine. As a freshman, Leonard averaged 12.7 points and 9.9 rebounds per outing and claimed all-conference First-Team honors. He improved as a sophomore, earning Second-Team All-American recognition, before entering into the 2011 NBA draft.
When the big night rolled around, the Indiana Pacers selected Kawhi but promptly traded him to the San Antonio Spurs. At that moment, the forward had lived up to his childhood pledge. Leonard was an NBA player.
Carving out a $149 million career in the NBA
For most basketball fans, earning a single NBA contact would be a dream come true. While inking that first professional deal did fulfill Leonard’s prediction, he wasn’t done there.
Despite beginning his Spurs career as a role player, capable of playing some tough defense or knocking down a corner three, Leonard worked his way to NBA stardom. While his defensive effort remained constant, the forward added more and more offense to his game. Once he was given the reins of his team in Toronto, he proved that he could be a do-it-all player capable of lifting a team to the title.
That reality, combined with the positionless nature of the modern NBA, helped Kawhi cash in. In July 2019, he joined the Los Angeles Clippers on a three-year, $103 million contract. It is worth noting, however, that the third year is a player-option, and the forward is expected to opt-out and hit the open market.
Regardless of what happens during the summer of 2021, though, Leonard has already built up a nice fortune playing basketball. Through the 2020-21 campaign, the forward has taken home just over $149 million in salary. It’s safe to assume that seven-year-old Kawhi wasn’t dreaming that big.
Even with millions in the bank, Kawhi Leonard hasn’t changed much
Given that he’s achieved his childhood dream and made more than $149 million along the way, it would be excusable if Leonard had let his success go to his head. By and large, though, it seems like the forward is the same person he was when he told his pediatrician about his NBA aspirations.
In addition to the fact that his trash talk hasn’t changed — Kawhi still keeps it pretty boring — Jenkins’ feature reveals some other details about Leonard’s personal life. At least as of 2016, the forward still spent “is summers in a two-bedroom apartment in San Diego, where he hangs a mini hoop over one door” and still walked around town with a basketball in his backpack.
From a financial perspective, things also remained rather humble. At the time, Leonard still drove a “rehabbed ’97 Chevy Tahoe, nicknamed Gas Guzzler” and “panicked” after losing his coupons for free Wingstop wings.
When he predicted his NBA career all those years ago, it’s safe to assume that Kawhi Leonard didn’t consider the implications of earning more than $100 million in raw salary. When push comes to shove, though, that money doesn’t seem to have changed him on a personal level.