Kawhi Leonard, the NBA's quiet new superstar

Kawhi Leonard's offensive game has taken another big step this season, and he leads the NBA in 3-point shooting percentage. Brett Davis/AP Photo

SAN ANTONIO -- The message plays in a near continuous loop in Kawhi Leonard's head.

"Just before about every game, I'll tell him, 'OK, the thing that makes players great is consistency,'" San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich explained to ESPN.com. "Go out there every night and do what Timmy's [Duncan] done in his career or Dirk Nowitzki or Kobe [Bryant]. Most players don't even know what that's like to have that kind of standard, that kind of responsibility night after night."

Popovich does all the talking. Leonard responds usually with, "Yeah" or "I got you."

"When I say these things to him, it's not like he says, 'OK Pop, I'm going to go out there and do this or that.' He'll just shake his head," Popovich said.

Leonard spares the words and flexes the verbs. That is how he elevated his game from a full-of-potential tier to an elite level, all while maintaining a profile as low as his deep monotone voice on the way to becoming the NBA's most unassuming new superstar, as well as a certain All-Star and likely MVP candidate.

When athletes keep quiet, it's typically easy to tap teammates for details about them. Yet in Leonard's case, that exercise is futile.

"How would I know? I have no answer," said LaMarcus Aldridge when asked about Leonard off the court.

David West could offer only this: "He's a hard worker; stays to himself."

Leonard speaks with steals, blocks, jumpers, rebounds and dunks as the catalyst on both ends of the court for San Antonio's 22-5 run to start the season. It's a situation that creates somewhat of an aura surrounding Leonard, as everyone but the forward himself discusses his game and ascension as part of MVP conversations.

"I pretty much don't pay too much attention to it," Leonard said. "I'm just here to try to help my team win the game. If I'm doing that and people want to have me in those conversations, then that's great."

A 'mindset' to be great

As one of just three players in league history to win NBA Finals MVP and NBA Defensive Player of the Year (the others are Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon), Leonard currently leads the NBA in 3-point field goal percentage (.495), despite entering the season as a career .368 percent shooter from long range. His all-around game has him on a historic pace: No player has ever connected on better than 40 percent of his 3-pointers while also averaging two steals (Leonard averages 2.1) and a block (he averages 1.0), according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

And then there is the matter of his steady development -- statistically -- since he came into the league as the 15th pick of the 2011 draft. Leonard's scoring (21.0 average), rebounding (7.4) and assists (2.7) are up on a per-game basis for the fifth consecutive season.

"Amazingly consistent," Manu Ginobili said of Leonard, before stopping himself. "Well, consistently amazing. He's been impressive; makes many plays look easy. You're playing [in a game] and at one point you look at the scoreboard he's 20 [points] and eight [rebounds]. So it's remarkable what he's doing. He's been incredible."

Leonard is not surprised by his ascension to another level, because he has put in the time to get better.

"I worked hard," Leonard said. "It's my fifth year. It's not just about what I did this summer, it's about the experience I had under my belt for the past four years. It just comes with a mindset. There are a lot of guys that stay in the gym and don't get any better. It's about being smart, figuring out your weaknesses and not being scared to do it in the games."

Leonard often discusses this "mindset" with regard to his game, yet never elaborates. But clearly he takes ownership of the role entrusted him by Popovich as the team's go-to scorer and lockdown defender on a roster already bursting with stars in Duncan, Aldridge, Ginobili and Tony Parker.

"I can only guess about the mindset thing," Popovich said. "If he doesn't tell you, we'll both be guessing. But my assessment would be that he's probably talking about the way he approaches every game. We do talk about that quite often. You're right, he wants to be the best player he can be. He buys in about this consistency and the fact you've got to bring it every night. When he doesn't, if he has a lapse or whatever, he'll either already know it or I'll mention it to him and it bothers him. He doesn't want to be like that."

Former longtime Spurs assistant and current Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer played a role in convincing Popovich to move on the trade in 2011 that sent Leonard's draft rights from Indiana for beloved guard George Hill. He is astounded by the strides Leonard has made since entering the NBA.

"Everything [is impressive], just the growth from his first two or three years to now," Budenholzer said. "Defensively, he's always been really special. To see how he's taking a lot of responsibility offensively, making tough shots, putting the ball in his hands and creating, he's just a physical force at the small forward position. It's a tough matchup. He's really grown."

'That's work ethic'

Leonard's growth comes from a variety of sources -- partly by way of his prototypical small-forward frame and immense physical gifts, not to mention the tutelage of Popovich and Spurs assistants Chip Engelland and Chad Forcier. Most of all, Leonard's ascension came through his own hard work.

In high school, Leonard developed a legendary work ethic, which carried on to college at San Diego State University. There it wasn't uncommon for him to bring in lamps from a dorm room to light up a dark Viejas Arena in order to hoist hundreds of shots.

Chicago Bulls swingman Tony Snell saw it firsthand as Leonard's teammate at Martin Luther King High School in Riverside, California.

"His work ethic is amazing because he's got a mindset," Snell said. "He works on the things he needs to work on and gets better at the things he's good at."

Popovich said the legend about Leonard's work ethic rings true.

"First of all, he shows up before and after practice. Before shootaround today, he's there 45 minutes to an hour early. He's working on little bank shots, jump shots, rocker step out on the wing from the short wing," Popovich said. "It's like Larry Bird coming and shooting 200 shots before games like he used to do. He's there.

"After practice, he's there working on his 3-pointer. He's not shooting at the percentage he's shooting just because it happened. He's putting in the time. He's worked at it. So Chip Engelland and Chad Forcier have done a great job working with his moves, his shooting, that kind of thing. That's the first thing that shows you his work ethic is for real."

Popovich said he often even has to make sure Leonard isn't doing too much.

"Lots of times, I've got to get on those guys," Popovich said, pointing toward the offices of the assistants. "I'll say, 'We've got a game tonight' or 'Hey, he's been here long enough. Get him the hell out of here.' Then, he'll leave. It's a you've-got-to-kick-him-out-of-the-gym sort of thing. And then you see it carry over into the games. When something doesn't work, it bothers him, and he goes back to work on it the next day. That's work ethic."

A perfect fit for Spurs

When the Spurs first considered bringing in Leonard, the objective was simply to add a bigger perimeter player.

"George Hill was one of my favorites, but it was kind of a small lineup to have Tony, Georgie and Manu at the 3," Popovich said. "That's just not strong enough, big enough. It doesn't work. We needed a bigger 3 in today's NBA. We saw his body. We saw his toughness at San Diego State. He was more of an inside guy than he was an outside guy. But he looked like he had the feet and the basketball knowledge; like you'd see when he'd get a rebound, you'd see when he'd make a pass that he kind of understood how to play. With his height, his length, [wing]span, shoulders, we saw a body we thought could be changed pretty easily into a perimeter player. We were willing to take a chance on it."

"We all have to be who we are. I don't want him to change. I don't want him to be somebody he's not. I want him to feel comfortable in his own skin and be who he is." Gregg Popovich on Kawhi Leonard

The move to deal the popular Hill for Leonard's draft rights came with consternation from Parker, Duncan and Ginobili, not to mention trepidation from Popovich, who was eventually convinced by Budenholzer to consummate the trade.

"I'd be lying if I told you we knew then he was gonna be the defensive player of the year or we knew he was going to shoot 50 percent from 3[-point range]," Popovich said. "That's not what we thought. We didn't know he would catch on shooting this quickly or he would learn as quickly as he has learned all the things we've given him."

Coming off the team's loss to the Los Angeles Clippers in the opening round of the Western Conference playoffs last season, Popovich sat Leonard down and spoke with him about the improvements he needed to make headed into the 2015-16 campaign. Popovich wanted Leonard to become more comfortable in the post knowing opponents would double-team and front him regularly.

Leonard needed to learn to navigate the pressure, which meant he needed to hone decision-making just as much as the physical aspects of post play. So over the summer the team put on film of Charles Barkley because, "Charles was great on the block; making decisions, passing, scoring, doing what you've got to do on the block," Popovich said. "Kawhi took that to heart."

In addition to improving his post play, Leonard worked on dribbling and catch-and-shoot situations.

Now observers are starting to see the full scope of Leonard's repertoire, not just on the court but off it too. Popovich said Leonard has become "a little more comfortable with ribbing, joking, that type of thing; a little bit more ready to laugh and enjoy the humor of things."

Duncan also sees a more confident Leonard.

"I think he's very comfortable with what his role is and what his position is now. So you see him doing that, and not asking for permission anymore, just kind of going and doing it," Duncan said.

Still, Popovich hopes Leonard keeps his mysterious aura.

"We all have to be who we are," Popovich said. "I don't want him to change. I don't want him to be somebody he's not. I want him to feel comfortable in his own skin and be who he is. So I just concentrate on basketball, and we'll talk to him about different situations that might arise presswise or socially."

Leonard already seems to have that game down pat.

Having won awards for defensive player of the year and Finals MVP in addition to signing a five-year contract worth more than $94 million in July, Leonard now "just wants to win another championship, that's it," he told ESPN.com. "That's what drives me."

Eyeing what should be his first All-Star appearance, Leonard keeps his personal career goals simple:

"That I played the hardest that I could throughout my whole career, and to see that I have team accomplishments like championships," Leonard said. "That's all I need."

ESPN.com's Nick Friedell contributed to this story.