By Jon Krawczynski
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Kawhi Leonard has quietly risen to stardom in San Antonio, hardly uttering a word as he captured an NBA Finals MVP, Defensive Player of the Year award and a maximum contract extension this summer.
His dynamic play on both ends of the court stands in stark contrast to his whisper-quiet demeanour off of it, thereby challenging the theory a player in the NBA has to be outspoken, brash and vocally assertive to be a true star.
In having the success he has in such short order with all the flair and charm that often accompany a star’s rise, he has provided the blueprint for Minnesota Timberwolves forward Andrew Wiggins, another rising talent with little interest for self-promotion or on-court theatrics. Wiggins won Rookie of the Year last season and is averaging more than 21 points per game in his second year while also showing signs of becoming a top-tier perimeter defender.
And even though he has been followed by cameras since he was a 14-year-old prodigy growing up in Toronto, Wiggins doesn’t seek out the spotlight. Actually, he much prefers it to be pointed elsewhere.
The similarities in game and personality are so striking that Wolves veteran Kevin Garnett predicted the two would be going toe-to-toe for the next decade.
“Makes the matchup a little more personal,” Garnett said. “Although these two guys are quiet, their games are monstrous. Their games speak volumes. So don’t let the quietness fool you.
“Drew is coming into himself. Kawhi is coming into himself. Should be a really, really good matchup for the future.”
Leonard dominated the matchup last week, holding Wiggins to 2-for-11 shooting in a Spurs win in Minnesota. The two face each other in San Antonio on Monday.
The Wolves are taking the same approach with Wiggins as the Spurs did with Leonard. They’re not trying to force him to be something he is not.
“Everybody does it differently,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “You can’t change people. So with Kawhi, because he’s Kawhi, we just talk about communication on defence. Everybody, all coaches, moan and groan about that. Other than that, he can be as quiet as he wants.”
The Phoenix Suns were the feel-good story in the league two years ago, surprising everyone in coach Jeff Hornacek’s first year on the job with 48 victories. But chemistry issues have clouded the skies in Phoenix for the last two years, and they entered this season with disgruntled forward Markieff Morris expressing a desire to be traded.
Things came to a head last week when Morris was suspended for two games for throwing a towel at Hornacek and the Suns became just the second team this season to lose to the lowly Philadelphia 76ers. They have lost six of their last seven games to fall to 12-20, guard Eric Bledsoe is out with a knee injury and the heat is on Hornacek to get things right.
“We’re just flat-out losing games and something’s got to change real quick,” forward P.J. Tucker said.
THINGS TO WATCH
_Warriors at Rockets, Thursday: A rematch of the Western Conference finals. Interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff has the Rockets playing better, and he blasted them after a loss to New Orleans on Saturday.
_76ers at Lakers, Friday: Philadelphia’s first victory this season came at home against Kobe and the Lakers. After they beat Phoenix, could the Sixers win twice in a week?
_Bulls rebound: After Jimmy Butler called out coach Fred Hoiberg, the Bulls beat Oklahoma City on Christmas and went down swinging at Dallas. At 16-12, the sky is hardly falling, and they get three home games this week against Toronto, Indiana and New York.
_Joerger’s job: With the Memphis Grizzlies struggling to keep pace in the West, Dave Joerger could be the next coach to fall victim to an owner looking to shake things up.
_Bucks at Thunder, Tuesday: Milwaukee is the only team to beat Golden State. Oklahoma City is starting to play like a legit challenger in the West, giving the young Bucks another chance to get some attention.
STAT LINE OF THE WEEK: Kobe Bryant, Lakers: 31 points, five assists in a win over Denver. Bryant got off to a brutal start to the season offensively, leading to severe criticism of his approach on a young and rebuilding team. But this was vintage Kobe, right down to the dagger at the end.