Kawhi Leonard is the understated superstar. He high-fives instead of shimmies, he does not use social media and he quietly, though mightily effectively, goes about his business on the court.
His introverted personality and spotlight-disinterested demeanour do not take away from what a sensational basketball player he is. An NBA champion, two-time All-Star and two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Leonard belongs in that elite group of franchise-changing players.
This was common knowledge at the start of last season and 12 months before that. Just a few months ago, though, there was doubt about his health, and perhaps mindset, after the very public fall out with the San Antonio Spurs. Leonard was traded to Toronto with a point to prove.
Just a quarter of the way into the season, he has emphatically proved that point. There is a compelling case for Kawhi as the MVP so far. He is putting up career-highs in points and rebounds per game as well as an effective field goal percentage of 53.4%. Toronto – albeit not solely down to Leonard’s arrival – have the best record in the NBA.
Toronto’s brilliant start has a lot of influencing factors. Their depth is good, Pascal Siakam has been great and Serge Ibaka is playing well, but the biggest difference is having one of the league’s true superstars. Leonard is elite at both ends of the floor. He can dominate, and he can be an extremely effective part of a unit.
His game-winning display against Philadelphia was a good example. Leonard’s line was great (36 points, nine rebounds, five steals), but it was more than that. The Raptors were ferocious defensively, and much of that is down to Leonard. He leads by doing, he organises, and he will take the burden of guarding the best player.
Leonard excels in many areas and he’s very good in others. There are barely weaknesses to his game, which certainly made the trade easier for Toronto. The two-time All-NBA small forward seamlessly slotted in.
Toronto have been a good team for several seasons. The addition of Leonard takes them to another level altogether. That’s what the small group of superstars do, and why any move they make is such seismic news. Only five, maybe 10, players have the impact a fully fit, on-top-of-his game Leonard does.
The trade looked good – if a little risky – for the Raptors in the offseason. Once Leonard was healthy, it quickly became a brilliant move for Toronto, who have an increasing chance of retaining the best two-way player in the league.