Kawhi Leonard Joins Rare Company

Kawhi Leonard of the San Antonio Spurs joins rare company as the fourth NBA Finals MVP from a California high school. Read why this award is a good omen for the 2009 Cal-Hi Sports Mr. Basketball from King of Riverside and why there is one all-time NBA great missing from the short list.

There’s no telling how good of a NBA career Kawhi Leonard of the San Antonio Spurs will have, but the former San Diego State and King of Riverside standout if off to a great start after three years in the NBA. On Sunday night, he was named 2014 NBA Finals MVP after averaging 17.8 points and 6.4 rebounds per game in the Spurs’ 4-1 series victory over the Miami Heat.

It’s a good omen for the remainder of Leonard’s pro career. Two of the former California products to earn NBA Finals MVP are in the Naismith Hall of Fame — 1977 winner Bill Walton (Helix, La Mesa) of the Portland Trailblazers and the late Dennis Johnson (Dominguez, Compton) of the Seattle Supersonics (now Oklahoma City Thunder) in 1979. The other California NBA Finals MVP, Paul Pierce (Inglewood) of the Boston Celtics in 2008, in well on his way to enshrinement.

Leonard, Walton, and Pierce are all former Cal-Hi Sports Mr. Basketball picks, but ironically, all three of them are considered late-bloomers. Leonard was a part-time starter at Canyon Springs of Moreno Valley his sophomore season. Walton didn’t gain recognition as one of the top players in his class nationally (1970) until a dominant showing at the prestigious Covina Tournament early in his senior season. As for Pierce, he began high school as a rather plump player who was fearful he couldn’t make the legendary L.A. Crenshaw varsity, so he transferred back to Inglewood where he developed into the state’s top player in 1995.

Johnson is one of the state’s ultimate late bloomers. He rarely saw playing time at Dominguez, but developed into a guard at Pepperdine after playing in the post at L.A. Harbor College. After one season of D1 hoops, he was a NBA Finals MVP three short years later. The award began for the 1968-69 season, but had it begun earlier there is little doubt perhaps the state’s all-time greatest late bloomer, Bill Russell (Oakland McClymonds) probably would have won the award multiple times. Russell’s former Boston Celtics teammates K.C. Jones (Commerce, San Francisco) and Bill Sharman (Porterville) might have won it at least once had the award been around in the late 1950s and early 1960’s. Fittingly, the award is named after Russell.

Earlier this year, former Taft of Woodland Hills linebacker Malcolm Smith of the Seattle Seahawks was named Super Bowl MVP, so we’ll be watching closely to see where this year’s World Series MVP hails from.

For more on Leonard’s story from his years at King, CLICK HERE, as StudentSportsBasketball.com was able to chat with his high school coach, Tim Sweeney Jr., after Sunday night’s clinching win by the Spurs.

In a related note, Sweeney, who resigned from his coaching post at King at the conclusion of this past season, told Cal-Hi Sports he will not be coaching at a public high school program in the foreseeable future. Sweeney said he is going to look into college coaching or pro scouting opportunities.

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One Comment

  1. Mike
    Posted June 16, 2014 at 10:01 pm | Permalink

    Little known fact. Bill Russell ( the original Lord of the Rings) was baseball Hall of Famer Frank Robinson’s back-up at McClymond’s HS.

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