With the benefit of hindsight, the Toronto Raptors were always targeting Lithuanian center Jonas Valanciunas with the fifth overall draft pick in 2011. However, it wasn’t a certainty that they could land the big man and it was Kawhi Leonard who had wowed Raptors scouts and management during the pre-draft workouts in Toronto. Based on the feedback from then Senior Director, Scouting Jim Kelly, Toronto was very serious about taking the San Diego State defensive phenom with their first round draft pick.
“That’s a good question,” said Kelly after Leonard’s workout in 2011. “I’d say not decided for sure, but today was by far our best workout, our most competitive, and highest level of skill. We had some very interesting players. We had two names that have been bound about at the top of the draft in Kawhi Leonard and Marcus Morris.”
The knock on Leonard’s game out of college was his shooting. The 6’7 small forward with the 7’3 wingspan and freakish 11.25” hand width was a very active defender who averaged 10.5 rebounds and 1.4 steals in his last year. Unfortunately Leonard’s jump shot was highly suspect, but just a few weeks working out at Joe Abunassar’s Impact Basketball after the season was proving that should not have been a concern.
“I have been working on catch and shoot from the three-point line as that would be my weakness in college,” said Leonard after his workout with the Raptors. “Since I have been working on it for about three and a half weeks, I have been feeling more comfortable and shooting it without thinking about it.
“Nobody sees me work out from the public, but the coaches I work out with said they could see the development in my shot and how hard I have been working and how my release point is coming off. It feels good right now and I have confidence in it.”
Watching Leonard working out in Toronto was impressive. The young man had the best pre-draft workout that I can remember seeing. Towards the end, a completely gassed Leonard was running catch-and-shoot three point drills and he was hitting on better than half of his attempts. This was way beyond anything Leonard would have been expected to do coming out of college.
“Kawhi, I have seen quite a bit as I am based on the west coast and I’ve been watching him for a number of years,” said Kelly. “But today he really shot the ball well. His shooting touch has definitely improved since later in the season. I think his proficiency at three-point shooting was as good as anyone here.”
Like a lot of college prospects preparing for the NBA Draft, Leonard was cramming in as much as possible to show teams he could do more than the scouts had seen him contribute up until now.
“(I have been working on) back down, two dribble pull-up, just getting my touch right, shooting form, just the basic things,” said Leonard. “I am trying to develop my overall game, not just working on one area like shooting. I am going in the post, coming off pin downs, catch and shoot. I am trying to work on my overall game so I can be effective at all times. The biggest (change) is my overall game. There were certain things in San Diego State that I couldn’t showcase. My hard work is paying off I guess.”
The hard work didn’t necessarily pay off on Draft Night as Leonard fell to the Pacers at 15th overall, but the shooting form Leonard was demonstrating in Toronto wasn’t a fluke as the small forward has shot better than 37 percent from three-point range in each of his first three NBA seasons. However, it wasn’t the Pacers that benefitted from getting a great defender with better than expected shooting range, the Spurs swung in with a trade offer Indiana couldn’t pass up and stole him.
The Raptors didn’t made a mistake by taking Valanciunas instead of Leonard, their young center is showing strong signs he will become the dominant player they envisioned when they drafted him. However, Leonard has gone above and beyond proving Kelly wasn’t blowing smoke after that pre-draft workout in Toronto.