Steve Fisher led the charge in recruiting the most famed freshman class in NCAA history.
Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King, Ray Jackson: the University of Michigan’s Fab Five, a group that changed the way college basketball’s top coaches built their rosters and chased talent. All of a sudden, you could dream about competing for a national championship on the backs of freshmen, pairing two or three or four together for a shot at a season of glory. Kentucky has pulled it off a few times, and Duke is trying to this year.
Fisher was eventually fired because of a scandal involving the booster that helped draw Webber to Michigan, but regardless of the aftermath, Fisher was intimately familiar with big-game scouting. After departing Michigan, Fisher took over the program at San Diego State University, and the memory of the Fab Five dwarfed the idea of recruiting a lanky forward with gigantic hands named Kawhi Leonard.
Back in his junior season at Martin Luther King High in Riverside, Calif., Leonard was seen as a “tweener.” A decade later, the concept of a player who could defend multiple positions and couldn’t be defined by a single offensive position is exactly how NBA rosters are being built; back then, Leonard was seen as somebody without the ball-handling or shooting to play as a swingman but without the bulk to bang with big men. Even when he broke out in his senior year, being named California’s Mr. Basketball, he barely cracked the top 50 prospects in the Class of 2009.
Fisher had seen enough a year earlier to want to go after Leonard, though.
“He played second fiddle to some of the other guys,” Fisher said of first seeing Leonard at a local AAU tournament. “From my perspective and San Diego State’s, that wasn’t bad.”
A few of his assistants had sold Fisher on Leonard’s defensive versatility, as well as some semblance of an offensive upside. Fisher wanted to put the full-court press on Leonard, knowing the longer he did not declare, the more time some bigger schools would have to figure out that Leonard was worth going after.
The school set up a meeting at Leonard’s house. You are allowed just one visit to a recruit’s home, so it was going to be an important conversation. Fisher and two of his assistants, Brian Dutcher and Justin Hutson, talked with Leonard and his mother, Kim Robertson. Leonard’s father, Mark, was murdered at a car wash in Compton earlier that year.
“He was very attentive. I watch. I’m pretty observant,” Fisher recalls of the meeting. “He constantly made eye contact. He wasn’t like a lot of kids where he was looking down. He was looking at you. You could tell that he was listening, but he didn’t say anything. His mother did all of the talking and asked all of the questions.
“Kawhi was immensely shy with people he did not know, very guarded as to what he would say. Usually one- or two-word answers: yes, no sir, thank you, yes. He didn’t say very much. I remember when we had our home visit, I left and I told Brian ‘We’re not gonna get him. He didn’t say a word.’”
As is often the case, Fisher’s assistants had done more of the on-the-ground recruiting with Leonard than the head coach. Accordingly, they got a better sense of who Leonard was, what he was like, how he acted and what he wanted out of his college experience.
“I remember coach Fisher didn’t think we were going to get him because Kawhi hardly said a word. He just sat there and listened and twiddled his thumbs,” said Hutson, now the head coach at Fresno State. “But Kawhi was calculating. He was listening. I told coach, ‘We’re the only team in the home. We’re going to have an OK chance.’ He wasn’t letting just anybody come in and speak with him.”
Up until a few years ago, Leonard rarely found himself involved in the hype machine, a very strange thing to say about someone who would become one of the five or so best players in the NBA. He wound up being the best player on his team at King, but it was a deep squad. Leonard ended up being the top recruiting priority for San Diego State, but they are a mid-major school without a huge resumé of tournament runs like Gonzaga or Creighton have. In a perfect bit of placement, he was drafted 15th overall in 2011 — one slot out of the lottery, where non-playoff teams are hoping they can find a franchise saviour. When Leonard went to San Antonio in a draft night trade that sent George Hill to Indiana, the Spurs hoped that they had found a possible starter. Future franchise cornerstone, a player who could help the Spurs chase more titles and eventually take the baton from Tim Duncan? That was at the far, far end of the possibility spectrum
And then Leonard got in the gym in front of the Spurs’ staff.
“I just remember meeting someone and observing someone who in terms of just his physical attributes were awe-inspiring — the way he was built, the length and his shoulders and the size of his hands, all of that kind of stuff was amazing,” said former Spurs assistant and current Grizzlies assistant Chad Forcier.
All of his former coaches have this kind of story about Leonard, who was traded to the Raptors along with Danny Green for franchise icon DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a first-round draft pick in July. Between his quiet nature and his relatively short history of playing basketball — before transferring to King for his junior year, Leonard focused on football, where he was a safety and (of course) a wide receiver — Leonard did not wow anybody in conversation or on paper.
He could not be denied on the floor, though.
“He has the biggest hands of any player I’ve ever coached other than Chris Webber,” Fisher said. “If a ball touches his hands, he gets it.”
“Everybody makes such a big deal of his hands. But when you see them (in person), you’re like, ‘Damn,’” added Jeff Dietz, an assistant at King during Leonard’s time there who is now the head coach. “He would lean down and, ‘Wap,’ grab a ball and stick it under his arm, ‘wap,’ grab a ball and stick it under his arm. In high school you don’t see that. You just don’t see 17-year-old kids just palming basketballs and tossing them into the bin.”