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Paul George and Kawhi Leonard: Wings of Desire

Dec 7, 2013; San Antonio, TX, USA; Indiana Pacers forward Paul George (24) drives to the basket as San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard (2) and guard Danny Green (4) look on during the first half at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

“When the child was a child, it walked with its arms swinging. It wanted the stream to be a river, the river a torrent, and this puddle to be the sea. When the child was a child, it didn’t know it was a child. Everything was full of life, and all life was one. When the child was a child, it had no opinion about anything, no habits. It often sat cross-legged, took off running, had a cowlick in its hair, and didn’t make faces when photographed.”

—Peter Handke, from Wings of Desire

Here is what constitutes a flashy dunk for Kawhi Leonard:

Did you catch that? You might have missed it the first time around, but it’s clearly there in the replay, even if the film kicks over into half-speed a beat too late to capture it in molasses-y glory: a one-handed double pump. (Incidentally, holding the ball with one hand for Leonard gives him about as much square footage of grip on the ball as doing so with two hands would for most people.)

For comparison’s sake, here is a somewhat enthusiastic dunk from Paul George:

Ahem.

Given these two data points and a passing acquaintance with their all-around games, you might be forced to conclude that George is a swaggering future superstar while Leonard is a buttoned-down glue guy. I mean, just check their contrasting podium games.

But coming into the league, the perceptions about these swingmen were not so different.

From Draft Express in 2011 on Leonard: “Working on his shooting mechanics, ball handling, and overall perimeter skills, Leonard also impressed with his physical tools and stoic demeanor. … He sees himself as a long-term shooting guard/small forward with the ability to defend multiple positions, and seems to have a very good understanding of what he needs to work on. … [He] made his presence felt on offense with a few midrange shots and finishes around the bucket, but did most of his damage defensively. [H]e was extremely aggressive when defending the perimeter and made some impressive plays rotating back to his man on the pick and roll. Leonard did nothing to dispel sentiments that he’s one of the top defenders in this class.”

From Draft Express in 2010 on George: “George is an incredibly tantalizing prospect to watch in person due to his physical tools, versatile skills and considerable upside. … The most impressive part of George’s workout from our perspective was the potential and intensity he showed on the defensive end. His outstanding size, length, lateral quickness and instincts give him the potential to develop into a Trevor Ariza-type defender. He’s capable of defending up to three positions at the NBA level, and is fully capable of impacting a game on that. George’s anticipation skills were on full display. He was able to block shots, get into passing lanes, contest jumpers and generally touch everything in his area. … George has been criticized for his laid-back demeanor dating back to his high school days. Seeing how easily the game of basketball comes for him, it’s not hard to see where this is coming from.”

Many particulars differ, of course. Leonard was praised for his low turnover rate, George chastised for his high turnover rate. And being “stoic” is not quite the same as “laid-back,” although it’s not hard to mistake one for the other. But both struggled from beyond the arc prior to the NBA, and both came into the NBA looking more polished defensively than offensively overall.

What’s happened to them since boils down to being raised by wolves in the case of George or going into an apprenticeship in the case of Leonard.

As a rookie in 2010-11, George came to a Pacers team with Danny Granger as its star. Head coach Jim O’Brien was fired after beginning the season 17-27 and Frank Vogel replaced him to lead the team to a 20-18 finish. Roy Hibbert was in his second year, Lance Stephenson in his first. Since that season, Indiana has added David West and slowly built a culture and identity around toughness and teamwork. George went from supplementing Danny Granger to supplanting him following Granger’s knee injury in 2012.

Almost exactly a year older than Leonard, George this season stepped at first resoundingly and then slowly more and more disastrously into his role as the face of a franchise. Early MVP buzz and the above showstopper of a dunk led into a now widely-ridiculed GQ photo session and a rocky second half of the season for the Pacers. Having now survived two hard-fought playoff series and knee-deep in a slog against the Heat, George and his team look less ready for primetime than they did last season or at the beginning of this one.

But this is a team that has more or less grown up alongside George, not precisely making it up as they go, but still feeling their way forward through challenges. Simply put, there’s no blueprint for George and that’s shown both on the court and off as he and those around him navigate his path from potential star to fully-formed face of the franchise.

By way of comparison, take a look at George at the age of 22 last year when he won Most Improved Player and Leonard’s at the age of 22 this year. There’s no category outside of raw scoring (and maybe assists) where George clearly outstrips Leonard. In many of the advanced ones (true shooting percentage, player efficiency rating, net rating), Leonard has a definitive edge, and he even narrowly tops George in the recently codified real plus-minus.

So why aren’t people with plaques and hunks of oak topped with little golden men beating down Leonard’s door?

There is, of course, that stoic demeanor. But there’s also the fact that Leonard is tucked into a crowd of several Hall of Famers in Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and not least of all Gregg Popovich. The most obvious star in San Antonio is the system itself, the mystique attached to a franchise that has quietly put together one of if not the most impressive spans in pro sports going back almost 20 years. Next come Popovich and Duncan, then Ginobili and Parker. No matter that Popovich said that Leonard will “be the face of the Spurs” — Leonard is likely not going to be appearing on Jimmy Kimmel or attracting attention for his wardrobe any time soon.

But isn’t that more or less what being the face of the San Antonio Spurs has entailed for almost the last two decades? “I talk to him here and there,” said Leonard about Duncan. “But Tim don’t talk either. It’s not going to be a long conversation.” Leonard’s career so far has channeled his stoicism, sought to feed it and mold it into the kind of durable yet invisible armor that Duncan has worn throughout his career. A few incidental fisticuffs and glass shards aside, Parker, Ginobili and Duncan are more than role models for Leonard: they’re master craftsmen in the art of disappearing into the fabric of their team.

Given that Leonard was selected by the Pacers with the 15th pick in the 2011 draft and then traded to San Antonio for George Hill, it can be interesting to consider what might have happened if Indiana had instead given up Paul George instead, maybe feeling instead that Danny Granger had more left in the tank or that Leonard was a better fit for whatever reason. On the court, it’s not all that difficult to imagine them with roles reversed, flourishing differently but comparably.

Off the court, it’s a little different. George is out ahead, front and center in that infamous GQ photo, not completely at ease with his role but leaning into it. Leonard is still a little sheltered but always threatening to take yet another next step as his mentors age. Whether raised through trial and error out in the wild or brought up methodically by a steady hand, both George and Leonard are on the way.

Steve McPherson

Steve McPherson is an editor for Hardwood Paroxysm and his writing has appeared at Grantland, The Classical, A Wolf Among Wolves, TrueHoop, Complex, Narratively, Polygon and elsewhere. His Twitter handle is @steventurous.

  • Matt Donnelly

    Steve McPherson so who is better defensively right now and why?

  • Steve McPherson

    It’s more of a trick question than you might think. I think you’d have to pick Leonard as the better defender, but he’s also responsible for far less offensive weight than George. George is a very good defender for someone who also carries so much responsibility on the offensive end of the floor.