The next evolution of Kawhi Leonard's game: leadership

Kawhi Leonard enters his sixth NBA season -- and first without Tim Duncan alongside the Spurs -- aiming to take on more of a leadership role. Chris Covatta/Getty Images

SAN ANTONIO -- Scrambling furiously after excellence, San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard sharpened his jumper and enhanced lateral movement over the first part of his career; taking it even as far as strengthening the vastus medialis (a teardrop-shaped muscle in the quadriceps group that controls the knee joint) in both knees to lessen potential bouts with tendinitis.

No doubt, such relentlessness has proved fruitful, given that Leonard became the youngest NBA Finals MVP in 2014 since Magic Johnson, following that up with back-to-back NBA Defensive Player of the Year awards and a breakthrough 2015-16 campaign in which he averaged 21.2 points while knocking down 44.3 percent from 3-point range on the way to finishing second in MVP voting.

Naturally, as Leonard preps to enter Year 6 of his NBA career, the question is whether the 25-year-old forward can elevate his game even more.

"I worked on everything this summer," Leonard said. "I didn't really focus on one thing."

That's not entirely true. With franchise stalwart Tim Duncan announcing his retirement in July, and Father Time bearing down on Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, Leonard said he's concentrating on "just becoming a leader,'” which is exactly what San Antonio needs in this latest transition.

Leonard received his first taste at such a role last season but didn't fully flex the designation due to Duncan's lingering presence.

"Every year, we've seen improvement in Kawhi's communicative skills and coming to us and telling us what he wants and sometimes what he doesn't want," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "And I think that as time goes on, his communication with teammates will be very, very valuable and that will be part of his added responsibility for sure. Kawhi understanding how important he is will be important to us, and I think he knows that. But [last season] was his first year [as a leader], and he deferred to Timmy [Duncan] for good reason. Now, it's more his team in that sense because he's such a big part of it. So it'll be interesting to see how his leadership develops."

Aside from assuming a leadership role on a full-time basis, Leonard doesn't expect the upcoming season to be much different from 2015-16, when the forward earned his first trip to the NBA All-Star Game in addition to taking home first-team All-NBA honors.

As far back as 2012, Popovich predicted that at some point Leonard would become the face of the franchise.

That day is now.

"I led us both on the offensive and defensive end last year," Leonard said. "It's just going to be the same thing this year, just taking that approach of being a leader; setting that pace and example once that tipoff starts."

Leonard said he's focusing on "just making sure I know what's going on on the floor at every position," in addition to "being ready to get my mentality at leading the group this year."

Leonard spent his first five seasons learning from Duncan how to be a leader, and Popovich said the forward and Duncan lead similarly: by example.

"He's not gonna be as vocal as Patty Mills. That's not who he is," Popovich said. "He's not Avery Johnson. He does it differently. He's a little bit more like Timmy [Duncan]. He's gonna lead by example. He's gonna stay after practice, come early to practice, practice hard while he's here. That will probably be his major type of leadership, just like it was Timmy's. But after that, he's talking to people a whole lot more. And I do want him to communicate on the floor more and more, all the time."

Through the first four days of training camp, Leonard's presence has been felt by teammates from the standpoint of leadership, but Mills says he doesn't believe the forward needs to change who he is to help the team reach its goals.

"He's learning to mold all those things together, to be great in all those aspects," the eighth-year guard said. "That's his mindset, and you can see the way he walks around, and the way he steps out on the floor. He doesn't want to be just the Defensive Player or the Year or just the best 3-point shooter. He wants to be the best player, all around, and he definitely has the ability to do that."

On the court, aside from working over the summer to improve fundamentals, Leonard hopes to learn the most advantageous times and methods for taking over games; a skill which increasingly will be expected more from the Spurs as they transition away from the Duncan era with new pieces such as Pau Gasol and 2015 addition LaMarcus Aldridge.

"We'll have different needs with this team," Spurs general manager R.C. Buford said. "We'll all be learning together. Now Pau will be the new one that's coming in and trying to figure it out."

Leonard plans to help Gasol's transition. But individually, Leonard hopes to learn more about "when to take over games, when I need to shoot, when I need to pass," he said. But for San Antonio to win a sixth championship, Leonard says he believes "it starts with me and [Aldridge] first."

"If we win a championship, it's going to be up to us to lead the group," Leonard said.

As the team's second-leading scorer behind Leonard last season (18.0-point average), Aldridge agreed.

"I know that he and I have to take on bigger roles, especially with Tim being gone," Aldridge said. "We're going to try and be more vocal leaders; try to do more on the floor and in practice. It's just a mutual understanding that things are starting to shift here, and it's just more on him and myself."

Leonard says he likes it that way, as he quietly deferred during the early portion of his career to Duncan, Parker and Ginobili while waiting in the wings for his role to gradually increase.

Off the court, Leonard's role has changed, too, as his fiancée gave birth to a daughter.

"It's just a great feeling, once you have a child," Leonard said.

A sixth Spurs championship might bring about similar emotions.