Kawhi Leonard will always be known as one of the NBA’s top draft-day steals. Leonard, the all-star forward with the Los Angeles Clippers, was selected by the Indiana Pacers with the 15th overall pick in the 2011 NBA draft. He was immediately traded to the San Antonio Spurs in a deal for George Hill. He was overlooked mainly because some teams questioned his offensive game. Another team passed because of something that had nothing to do with his basketball abilities.
Kawhi Leonard has become a star
If the 2011 NBA draft were redone today, Kawhi Leonard would likely be the first player selected. Leonard, after a slow first two seasons, has easily become one of the NBA’s best players.
The 6-foot-7 small forward out of San Diego State has never been the flashiest or the most durable player in the league, but when he’s on the court, he’s all business. And he’s very effective. After a fallout with the Spurs, Leonard moved on to the Toronto Raptors and guided the team to its only NBA title in the 2018-19 season.
Leonard had spent the first seven seasons of his career with the Spurs but played in just nine games during the 2017-18 season because of an injury. Leonard and the Spurs had a difference of opinion on the severity of the injury, and the two parted ways the following season as he headed north to the Raptors. In Toronto, he put any questions about his offensive game to rest as he averaged 26.6 points per game. After his season in Toronto, he signed with the Los Angeles Clippers, inking a three-year max deal.
Leonard’s time at San Diego State
As senior in high school, Kawhi Leonard was named California Mr. Basketball in after averaging 22.6 points, 13.1 rebounds, and 3.9 assists per game. Leonard played just two seasons at San Diego State before declaring for the 2011 NBA draft.
In his freshman season with the Aztecs, Leonard averaged 12.7 points and 9.9 rebounds and helped his team qualify for the NCAA tourney. San Diego State lost in the opening round of the tournament to Tennessee. Leonard had 12 points and 10 rebounds in the game, and he was named Mountain West College Freshman of the Year.
In his sophomore season, Leonard averaged 15.7 points and 10.4 rebounds as the Aztecs again qualified for the tourney after a very impressive 34-3 regular season. This time, they made it to the Sweet Sixteen and lost to eventual national champion UConn. Leonard declared for the NBA draft after his sophomore season.
The Phoenix Suns passed on Leonard for an odd reason
In the 2011 NBA draft, Kyrie Irving out of Duke was the top selection, and it was pure speculation where Kawhi Leonard would fall. The San Antonio Spurs were hesitant to send George Hill in a deal to acquire Leonard on draft day. “We were all looking at each other like, Are we really going to do this?” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich remembers. “We were scared s—less. We don’t know this kid. He’s not a shooter. He’s not a scorer. He’s not a perimeter player. He’s a big guy who can rebound.”
After Irving was selected, 13 other teams passed on Leonard. One of those teams was the Phoenix Suns, who had the 13th pick, but they took Markieff Morris, a good player, but not Kawhi Leonard good. It was reported later that the Suns didn’t even have Leonard on their radar on draft night.
In a 2015 article, Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic reported, “But with a front office conducting its first draft in Phoenix, then-General Manager Lance Blanks’ staff did not have Leonard in the discussion. Part of the Suns’ knock on Leonard, beyond his perimeter shot, was how nervously he acted in a draft combine interview, when he sweated through his suit.”