The San Antonio forward was selected the NBA Defensive Player of the Year on Thursday, joining Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon as the only players to win the award and the NBA Finals MVP.
"It feels great," the 23-year-old Leonard said. "Growing up as a kid, you're watching these players and you want to become who they are or get the accolades that they have. It just shows that hard work pays off."
Leonard has become the Spurs' primary individual defender and led the league in steals at 2.3 per game.
Leonard received 37 first-place votes and 333 points from a panel of 129 writers and broadcasters. Golden State forward Draymond Green had 45 first-place votes, but appeared on fewer ballots and had 317 points. Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan finished third, receiving 32 first-place votes and 261 points.
The normally reserved Leonard did allow for an "aw, man" and a huge smile when he was presented with the award in front of Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and several teammates, who arrived in San Antonio only hours earlier from Los Angeles. The Spurs beat the Clippers 111-107 in overtime Wednesday night to even the first-round series at a game apiece.
"This isn't the goal for our team at all," Leonard said about the award. "Obviously, we want another championship. [Popovich] just wants me to keep pushing forward and try to help us win again this year."
Not that Popovich had to remind Leonard.
When the Spurs began scouting Leonard at San Diego State, they were as impressed with his humility and work ethic as by his athleticism, 7-foot-3 wingspan and 9.8-inch long hands.
"[His qualities were] a defensive-first mentality, being a good teammate," said San Antonio general manager R.C. Buford. "Working on his game and working on the things you need to develop, not just doing the things that you like to develop [as well as] the competitiveness."
That is why Buford made the then-unpopular decision to trade reserve point guard George Hill to Indiana for Leonard's rights. Leonard has rewarded Buford's faith over his four-year career.
Leonard was named to the All-Rookie team in 2012 and All-Defensive second team last season. He was also the Finals MVP last season after averaging 17.8 points on 61 percent shooting in leading the Spurs to a five-game victory over the Miami Heat for the Spurs' fifth championship.
After becoming the third-youngest player to win Finals MVP, Leonard has followed that up by becoming just the sixth forward to lead the league in steals since it began tracking that statistic 42 years ago. He joins David Robinson in 1993 and Alvin Robertson in 1986 as the only Spurs to win NBA Defensive Player of the Year.
While teammate Tim Duncan has never won the individual defensive honor, the veteran power forward has had the greatest impact on Leonard's development aside from Popovich.
"[Duncan's] focus, his mindset going into every game," Leonard said. "Playing both ends, wanting to shut his opponent down, just playing great team defense also. When a guy drives by me, he is there for the help side in the box so he doesn't get deflections and making the passes harder. Just learning his work ethic and his mindset going into every game [helped my development]."
Leonard is typically one of the last players to leave the team's practice facility, working with assistant coach Chad Forcier and Chip Engelland on jumpers and low-post moves.
"Our coaches are very engaged in that development," Buford said. "They deserve a lot of the credit, but Kawhi's got to participate. They've worked hard to put a program together that has fit him individually."
Despite the award and early success, Leonard said he still has much to learn.
"I'm still young, I feel I can get a lot better," he said. "I don't know, I'm just going to keep striving and trying to help my team win the game, hopefully I'll keep getting better."
At 6-7, Leonard is the shortest player to win the award since Ron Artest (Metta World Peace), also 6-7, in 2003-04. Each of the previous 10 winners were power forwards or centers. He also is the first player since 1982-83 (the first season of the award) to win a Finals MVP and defensive player of the year award without having previously made an All-Star team.
Injuries limited Leonard to just 64 games this season, but he still made an enormous impact, especially on defense. He helped the Spurs finish third in defensive rating with 99.6 points allowed per 100 possessions during the regular season. When he was on the floor, the Spurs allowed just 97.1 points per 100 possessions, a number that jumped to 102.2 when he wasn't playing.
Leonard also posted career highs in several statistical categories in 2014-15, including points (16.5), rebounds (7.2), assists (2.5) and minutes per game (31.8).
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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