Here’s a look at the article we did in 2009 when we chose Riverside M.L. King’s Kawhi Leonard as the Cal-Hi Sports Mr. Basketball State Player of the Year. It might seem today as if it was an easy choice at the time. It wasn’t. Leonard was not a McDonald’s All-American and he was lower than many others on national recruiting lists.
Editor’s Note: This also is one of the best articles that managing editor Ronnie Flores has ever done for our site.
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When motivation meets talent, special things can happen. For Kawhi Leonard, a 6-foot-7 do-it-all performer from Martin Luther King High School in Riverside, the 2008-09 season was truly special.
As a junior in 2007-2008, he was a key component on a team that finished 32-3 and reached the CIF SoCal Division I regional final. He was primarily a wing player that complimented all-state forward Eric Wise, a 6-foot-4 bruiser underneath. At one point during his season, Leonard was shooting six or seven 3-point shots per game and converting more than 48 percent of those attempts.
For his efforts as a junior, Leonard was named second team all-state underclass. It might have been a snub by Cal-Hi Sports not to name him to the first team, but it definitely wasn’t the biggest snub that motivated Leonard during his senior season.
Leonard, who grew an inch and put on at least 15 pounds of muscle this past year, expanded his game to become a dominant inside presence for the Wolves.
At the same time, he maintained his sweet shooting stroke and became nearly impossible for even the most talented high school teams to contain. Leonard finished the season averaging 22.6 points, 13.1 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game and led King to the CIF Division I regional final, while facing teams in the toughest section and regional playoff bracket in recent memory.
Because his expanded game led to team success and he received near unanimous endorsement of those that played and coached against him, Leonard has been named California’s Mr. Basketball by CalHiSports.com for the 2008-2009 season.
“Between this year and last, another transformation of his game was that he didn’t just sit on the outside to shoot threes,” remarked King head coach Tim Sweeney Jr. “His rebounding prowess was just incredible. I don’t know if there was a better rebounder in high school basketball. This is awesome, I am excited for him. Everybody is finally noticing how good Kawhi was.”
With his selection, Leonard becomes the first-ever boys basketball player from Riverside County to be awarded the state’s highest individual honor. He also becomes just the second player from the Inland Empire region to be selected, following Fontana’s Corey Benjamin for the 1995-96 season.
Although only two players from the region have been selected Mr. Basketball going back to 1905, the Inland Empire region had an abundance of fine players this season and San Bernardino County produced its first-ever state championship team when Rialto Eisenhower won the Division II state title.
Leonard’s stiffest competition for this honor also ended up being another Inland Empire product, Moreno Valley Rancho Verde’s Michael Snaer, not to mention the state’s highest regarded college prospect in the ESPNU 100, Renardo Sidney of Los Angeles Fairfax.
Sidney, the nation’s No. 7 prospect who finished with 11 points, six rebounds and had three assists at the 2009 McDonald’s All-American Game in Miami, saw his candidacy hurt by local consensus. It was point point guard Dominique O’Connor of Division I state champ Westchester of Los Angeles who was named L.A. City Section Player of the Year while Leonard was named the Player of the Year on the Los Angeles Times’ all-star team over both players. Leonard was also selected CIF Southern Section Division I-AA Player of the Year over Snaer, who did make a positive impression at the McDonald’s game in Miami and finished with 13 points.
It was in the CIFSS I-AA playoffs and the state regional where Leonard definitely made his mark and separated himself from the pack. Not since the 1993 or 1989 L.A. City Section playoffs have we seen a playoff division as stacked with as many good players and teams. Leonard led the Wolves to a semifinal win over Compton Dominguez and had a signature 11-point, 20-rebound performance in a a section finals’ 71-56 victory over then state and national No. 1 Mater Dei of Santa Ana.
Leonard not only displayed his defensive versatility in that game with six blocked shots and three steals, but also the ability to elevate the performances of his teammates as he did not score a single point during King’s decisive run. Against stellar competition, he made an impact on the game with the ability to guard players on the wing, as he did as a junior, or battle much taller players on the board and demand the ball inside, two elements he added to his game as a senior.
After the Mater Dei game, Leonard then led King to victories over CIFSS Division 1-A champ Tesoro and L.A. City Section runner-up Taft of the Woodland Hills in the regional playoffs before the Wolves’ season came to an end in the regional finals against eventual Division I state champ Westchester. Along the way, he drew praise from opposing players and coaches such as Taft’s Derrick Taylor and Dominguez’s Duane Cooper.
“Kawhi is the best player we faced this season,” Cooper remarked. “He beat us in more than one way, he didn’t kill us with points. It’s his energy that’s contagious. He’s bigger, stronger and more assertive than last season.”
Although he’s more assertive on the court than in years past, Leonard was humble and soft-spoken when informed he was joining a select group of Mr. Basketball winners includes recent players such as Jrue Holiday, Trevor Ariza, Tayshaun Prince, Baron Davis and Paul Pierce. Still, talking to Leonard it’s evident he’s a leader by example with a voice that carries the burning desire to be the best. It’s the kind of desire that comes from deep within.
“It feels good now that I’m just starting to get noticed,” said Leonard, who did not play basketball as a ninth-grader at Moreno Valley Canyon Springs. “At first, I was a bench player my sophomore year at Canyon Springs, but I was a starter by the middle of the season. When I switched schools, I started to work out and slowly picked up my game. Yeah, I’m happy to win this award, very excited.”
Tragically for Leonard, he did get attention of a different sort last year in January when he played in a game against Dominguez just one day after his father, Mark Leonard, was shot and killed in a robbery at a car wash he owned in Compton. Overcoming that situation the way he did also was impressive.
Leonard’s inner-fire this season was also lit up by the trials and tribulations of college recruiting. He wasn’t offered by many high-major schools, who passed on offering him a scholarship in favor of players who had been on the recruiting radar for a longer period of time.
“I already knew I wasn’t going to picked way before the McDonald’s team were announced based on where I was ranked on websites,” said Leonard, who will enroll at San Diego State as part of that school’s best recruiting class ever. “The bigger schools went after more name players. They were looking at me, but not as their main guy. They didn’t want me, so now I’m going to in looking to start and do my best. My goals are to win conference freshman of the year and help my team make the (NCAA) tournament.”
“He was being heavily recruited by the high majors,” Sweeney Jr. explained. “Overnight, they completely dropped off the map. They better hope they don’t play against him. If Kawhi continues to improve and shows this is what he wants to do, I have no doubt he can be an NBA player.”
Leonard’s transformation from bench warmer to impact player obviously played a role in his McDonald’s snub. That did not stop some of the California’s participants in the game to sing high praises about the California wing with long arms and huge Connie Hawkins-like hands who was missing in Miami.
“He’s quite a long athlete, he’s real good,” said Mater Dei’s Travis Wear. “He’s an All-American.”
“I am the Gatorade Player of the Year and I do feel I am the best player, but he deserves it,” said Snaer, whose Rancho Verde club lost to the same Mater Dei team that King beat. “He’s worked hard to get where he is.
“He just didn’t get the attention. I usually get all the credit out there (the Inland Empire). He just didn’t start out where all the other players in this class did. He’s gotten good real fast.”
Good enough to be named Mr. Basketball for California.