Devotion to the data: How Kawhi Leonard became a superstar

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Feb. 29 NBA Body Analytics Issue. Subscribe today!

IN 2011, WHEN the Spurs lost to the eighth-seeded Grizzlies in the first round of the NBA playoffs, it seemed possible their epic run was finally ending. Like 29 other teams, they needed the next Tim Duncan, if such a thing existed. Unlike other teams, though, they had no evident way to get one. Their winning record earned them low draft picks, and a roster of cheap journeymen and untouchable older guys left them without high-grade trade assets.

Except: entering-his-prime George Hill. Yes, that George Hill, the point guard whom coach Gregg Popovich still raves about half a decade later. In a move few saw coming, Hill was shipped out on draft night for the Pacers' first-round pick, 15th overall. Experts have learned to be cautious in criticizing the Spurs -- so many of their moves pan out -- but it was a genuine head-scratcher to trade a proven commodity for a roll of the dice.

Not five years later, somehow the Spurs are arguably better than ever, and that 15th pick -- an unheralded prospect who struggled to average 16 points a game in the Mountain West Conference -- is creeping into the MVP debate. Entering the second half, Kawhi Leonard owns the league's fourth-best real plus-minus, ahead of LeBron James and Kevin Durant. His rise has been so rapid and unexpected that he earned a starting spot in the All-Star Game even as half the nation remains unsure how to pronounce his first name (all together now: kuh-WHY).

But Leonard's success is far from a happy accident. It stems from a revolution in body analytics that is transforming the NBA, one human being at a time -- and from a player whose mind and body size up perfectly for this new world.

MEASURING NBA PLAYERS has long been, at best, an inexact science.

Like, exactly how tall is Charles Barkley? Listed at 6-foot-6 his entire career, it's revealed in the memoir I May Be Wrong but I Doubt It that he's really been 6-4¾ all along. According to the NBA's official guide, four-year player Mario Bennett withered from 6-9 to 6-6 in the 1998 offseason. It's been said that Kevin Garnett insisted on being listed at 6-11 to avoid the paint-patrolling tasks that 7-footers are subjected to. So: 6-11 it was.

This imprecision extends to the box score, where it's not hard to find home cooking at work. In his Motor City heyday, Ben Wallace somehow blocked a generous 653 shots in Detroit but just 458 on the road. More recently, Anthony Davis, in his first All-Star season, averaged 3.7 blocks at home and just 1.9 on the road. The Hornets averaged a whopping 5.0 more assists per game at home from 1994 through 2002.

Commissioner Adam Silver, czar of the uniquely technocratic NBA, is not wired for this kind of fuzzy math. When he took over for David Stern two years ago, he made a series of changes to sharpen the NBA's measurements. For the 2013-14 season, the league partnered with Stats LLC and installed SportVU player-tracking cameras in every arena. Now player speed, distance traveled and acceleration can all be cataloged and chewed on by data-crazed NBA fans and teams. The cameras even track potential assists. (Sorry, Charlotte!) To help dig into the mountain of data, the league office hired Harvard graduate Jason Rosenfeld as director of basketball analytics in the summer of 2014. The following March, the league began its first systematic public assessment of referees, publishing "Last Two Minutes" officiating reports.

More quietly, in 2014 Silver hired a sports science institute called P3 Applied Sports Science to modernize the league's draft combine. Beyond using tape measures, P3 puts players through a series of movements assessed by high-tech force plates embedded in the floor and cameras shooting from multiple angles, all feeding data into laptops. The founder, Dr. Marcus Elliott, says P3 asks not just how high do you jump but also how do you land and how high and how quickly can you jump a second time. The goal is to find patterns that predict injury. If a player lands on his right leg with disproportionately more force than his left, for example, that might be a signal of weakness in his left ankle. Even the smallest hitch in a player's running pattern could, over time, create a chain reaction of physical breakdowns, a human butterfly effect.

So it is that the NBA has become primed to optimize a player with the right unique mix of physical attributes -- the type of player who might have been overlooked just a few years ago.

MEASURING KAWHI LEONARD can cause a sports scientist to recalibrate his equipment. Relative to his height, Leonard wields the longest wingspan of any player in the NBA's combine database -- 4½ inches beyond what's expected of a 6-7 man. His hands are bigger than Anthony Davis', 9¾ inches from the base of his palm to the tip of his middle finger. Of the active players who've gone through the combine since 2010, he has the widest hands on record, at 11¼ inches.

Randy Shelton, Leonard's strength and conditioning coach at San Diego State, recalls the day he looked up at SDSU's student section to see a fan clutching a giant cutout of Kawhi's head affixed to a blue Na'vi body from Avatar. Spurs fans today may call Leonard The Claw. But the Human Avatar is the nickname that captures the tantalizing potential Shelton saw in college: "That's exactly how I wanted him to play. You want to be able to move at any degree at full speed and change direction like an Avatar."

It was a twist of the knee that helped Leonard fulfill that vision. During his second NBA season in 2012, Leonard was sidelined for 18 games with quadriceps tendinitis near his left knee. That offseason, the Spurs sent him to P3 to assess his vastus medialis, a teardrop-shaped muscle in the quads that powers the knee joint. "They focus on trying to balance out your body," Leonard explains. "You don't train there. I learned more about the body."

When P3's evaluation showed imbalances from his injury -- the particulars of which P3 refused to reveal to ESPN -- Leonard and Shelton devoted that summer to ensuring his quads weren't just strong but symmetrically and multidirectionally strong. "Most players are linear; they can run in a straight line and jump vertically," Shelton says. "But with Kawhi, we focus on perfecting change of direction."

His transformation was underway, and Leonard attacked it with zeal. Shelton, who works out the forward almost every summer in San Diego, says the practice court is where Leonard comes alive, morphing from the quietest player on the NBA's most media-averse team to a 230-pound blabbermouth: Why are we doing this? Where are we supposed to go with this? How's my form? Are my feet right? Is my weight distribution OK? How does my back look?

Indeed, P3's computers do only so much -- gleaning an athlete's movements through body sensors and superimposing those atop "ideal" movement patterns. It pays off only to the extent that a player can, over time, groove new habits. Shelton says Leonard, obsessed with achieving flawless precision, is, in that way, the perfect student: "Kawhi loves the analytics side, loves to look at everything, wants to know. That's the beauty about it."

Today, Shelton shows his college athletes video of Leonard guarding LeBron or KD simply by sliding laterally better than they can. He routinely preaches to them: "You gotta have hips like Kawhi."

AVATAR HIPS OR no Avatar hips, no one could have expected this. After winning the Defensive Player of the Year award last season, Leonard is now the NBA's only player to rank top-12 in real plus-minus on both ends of the floor. After missing 75 percent of his college 3s, he put his mind to work with Spurs shooting coach Chip Engelland and is now among the NBA's leaders in 3-point percentage. Better still, he's doing it for the Spurs, who were early adopters of a host of analytics-focused technologies -- SportVU, Second Spectrum and Catapult -- and named the best analytical team in pro sports at the 2015 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.

Leonard is the beneficiary. While many teams would grind a 24-year-old star into the ground, the Spurs are playing him just over 32 minutes per game. Like the holders of a dividend stock, they're cashing in on Leonard slowly but surely.

Which helps, in a way, explain one last story: In late January, Leonard was named a starter for the All-Star Game -- making him the only player other than Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon to be awarded Finals MVP, defensive player of the year and an All-Star starter. When Shelton heard, he texted congratulations. What he received in reply was so bland, so understated, it seemed eerily reminiscent of a certain longtime Spur. "Thanks," replied the next Tim Duncan. "This is just the beginning."