Coming out of college, few anticipated Kawhi Leonard blossoming into what he is today.
His high school coach Tim Sweeney Jr., though, told CBC he saw something special from the first two times up and down the court in a sixth-period scrimmage the first week of Leonard’s junior year.
“I immediately got on the phone,” Sweeney said to CBC. He called his dad, an assistant on the team who Sweeney had worked under for 14 years before becoming a head coach.
“I said, ‘Hey Dad, you gotta get down here. This kid is something else. I think we have an NBA player in our presence.”
That’s nothing to take lightly. Sweeney has coached seven NBA-bound players and many other Div. 1 athletes, he told CBC.
Leonard had transferred to Martin Luther King High School (Riverside, Calif.) that summer. Sweeney saw glimpses of the young player, but this was his first real experience.
His dad agreed Leonard could be a pro, and Sweeney took it one step further:
“Dad, he’s not only going to be an NBA player — he will be an NBA All-Star.”
If Sweeney truly did see this in Leonard, he was one of the few.
He tried pushing college coaches toward Leonard, but the then-Pac-10 coaches weren’t buying it, according to Yahoo.
“It was really bizarre,” Sweeney recalled to Yahoo. “He was already a really good player by that time, but he was always overlooked. I remember calling some of my coaching friends in the college ranks about him, but most of them weren’t interested.”
Pac-10 coaches saw him as a tweener, not a good enough shooting to play the three and too small to play the four. He was viewed as a backup option.
“To be honest, I felt like he was a mid-major post at the time,” former USC assistant Bob Cantu told Yahoo.
Instead, Leonard became the top recruiting target of San Diego State.
SDSU assistant coach Justin Hutson told Yahoo he was surprised other schools weren’t chasing Leonard.
“In their defense, he looked like a tweener, but you had to continue to watch him,” Hutson said. “In practice, you saw the way he handled the ball, the way he passed it, the way he operated on the perimeter. He had a high basketball IQ and his skill level was better than most people thought.”
That’s similar to what Sweeney told CBC.
Leonard’s intangibles put him above the rest of the high school athletes.
“Things that you can’t teach within the game itself,” Sweeney said. “(Great players) see the game at a different level and what they do is they react to the game at a different level. Even with all the great players we had on the team, I could just see it right out of the gate.”
Leonard committed to SDSU before his senior season started. He still wasn’t viewed as a top prospect until he led King to the championship over the top-ranked school in the country, Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.)
“Many people considered them one of the best California basketball teams ever put together, and at the time I had no argument,” Sweeney told Yahoo. “We weren’t expected to win that game, but the way we were playing and the way Kawhi continued to blossom into this absolute monster, I felt coming into the game that we had a great shot.”
King won. The universities had long since missed out, and Leonard moved onto SDSU.
After two years with the Aztecs, he was drafted No. 15 overall by the Indiana Pacers and then traded that same night to the San Antonio Spurs. There, he legitimized himself as a star.
Now on the Raptors, Leonard went beyond anything he had done and even what Sweeney had foreseen in leading Toronto to its first NBA Finals appearance.
“I never dreamed that he was going to ascend to possibly the greatest player in the game right now,” Sweeney told CBC. “What he’s doing is simply incredible.”