SAN DIEGO — Dave Velasquez was a year out of college, new on the San Diego State men’s basketball staff, when he noticed a fresh name on the list of recruiting targets scribbled on the white board in assistant coach Justin Hutson’s office.

“I just remember seeing this weird name,” Velasquez says. “The first time you see it, you have to think to yourself, ‘How do you pronounce that?’ ”

Kawhi Leonard.

It was early in the 2007-08 season, and Hutson had spotted Leonard at Martin Luther King High in Riverside, Calif., during a holiday tournament. He had gone to see no one in particular, just knowing several of Southern California’s top players and teams were entered. He left transfixed with a 6-foot-6 junior.

They were recruiting wings that year, on account of losing seniors Lorrenzo Wade and Kyle Spain from a team that would finish 20-13 and reach the NIT. Hutson quietly added Leonard to the white-board list that already included higher-rated small forwards like Tyler Honeycutt, Derrick Williams and Solomon Hill.

“I was like, man, this guy is really good,” says Hutson, now head coach at Fresno State. “He became an immediate target. I started to follow him around and saw a lot of his high school games during his junior year. I followed him around all April (on the AAU circuit). I followed him around all summer. He was such a winner, I kept going back and back and back.”

Hutson, like the rest of the SDSU staff, saw fertile ground. But they’re also honest. They didn’t know the San Antonio Spurs and Toronto Raptors star would be this preposterously good — NBA Finals MVP good, 30.7 points and 8.8 rebounds in the 2019 playoffs good, Game-7-four-bounces-and-in-winning-shot good, $190 million free agency good, highest regular-season winning percentage in NBA history good.

“Who ever knows someone is going to be one of the five best players in the world?” says SDSU head coach Brian Dutcher, then an assistant on Steve Fisher’s staff. “You don’t.”

It’s a fair question, though, a decade later: How in the heck did he end up at San Diego State?

Aztecs basketball then was not what Aztecs basketball is now. They had not been to the NCAA Tournament six straight seasons, had not reached the Sweet 16 twice, had not been ranked as high as No. 4 and receiving first-place votes, had not sold out Viejas Arena months before the first game. They were trending up under Fisher, certainly, but they had never won a Division I NCAA Tournament game or appeared in The Associated Press Top 25.

And Leonard was playing for one of the top high school teams in Southern California, loaded with other Div. I prospects, a state championship contender, playing a competitive schedule against other prep stars. UCLA and USC were just down the freeway. Arizona and Arizona State regularly recruited Southern California. So did Cal and Washington. So did blue bloods like Duke, North Carolina and Kentucky.

None offered him a scholarship.

History will remember it as one of the great recruiting misses in Southern California prep history, a stark reminder that the evaluation of 17-year-old kids remains an inexact science. (SDSU knows, a year earlier having passed on a two-star guard from Oakland named Damian Lillard.)

“All those schools didn’t think he was good enough, that’s the bottom line of this,” says Clint Parks, who coached Leonard at Riverside-based club Team Eleate. “They can spin the story now however they want. Kawhi was good as a junior and senior. Let’s cut the crap about him not being good. He was good, he was very good, and he was still getting better. Everyone missed the boat. They misevaluated.

“San Diego State evaluated him properly. They saw something. They knew what he could be. But let’s call a spade a spade. Enough with the, oh, he wasn’t this good, he wasn’t this, he wasn’t that. The dude was a monster then. He didn’t just pop up overnight.”

Michael Jordan, legend erroneously has it, was cut from his high school varsity as a sophomore (he actually was sent down to JV to get more playing time). Leonard, similarly, was cut from the team at Moreno Valley’s Canyon Springs High as a freshman, but not because he wasn’t good enough. His mother simply couldn’t get him to tryouts, and the coach had a strict no-tryouts, no-play rule.

But three Canyon Springs players were on Team Eleate and told club founder Marvin Lea about this kid with huge hands, long arms and a relentless work ethic. “They kept telling us: ‘He could be nice,’ ” Parks says.

Lea had led King High to a state title a few years earlier and played at Pepperdine. Leonard joined his club and spent his sophomore year on a 14-12 Canyon Springs team before Lea suggested a transfer to King and coach Tim Sweeney Jr. for his final two seasons.

That’s where Hutson, the tip of SDSU’s recruiting spear, first saw him.

“I just thought he had a great feel for the game,” Hutson says. “It takes a while to see it, but I thought his skill level was good. He shot the ball a little flat, but he could really guard on the perimeter. I didn’t know his work ethic was this legendary. How could you? I just knew he worked hard, and I definitely knew he was about winning, and I knew he could play the wing.

“I just stuck with those three things and built an honest relationship with him.”

Leonard played a few tournaments with Team Eleate, a smaller club that often was relegated to back gyms and minor brackets at tournaments where college coaches scouted. But in the summer before his senior year, Lea and Parks let Leonard play with the Pump N Run Elite club operated by famed grassroots basketball power brokers David and Dana Pump.

Three Pump N Run teammates would play at UCLA, one at Kansas, one at Arizona, one at UNLV, one at New Mexico. They played in the biggest gyms, on the biggest circuit, in the biggest end-of-summer tournament in Las Vegas attended by all the top coaches.

“They had a lot of opportunities to evaluate that young man,” Hutson says. “Hard to get in touch with him? Yeah. Man of few words? Yup. But under the radar? Heck, no. Come on, he played for the Pumps in Vegas.”

Says Fisher: “I got nervous. I thought, ‘Everybody in the world is going to see him play because they had all those players.’ I was secretly hoping he wouldn’t play well. But he played well.”

“Everyone,” Parks says, “kept saying he needs more exposure, getting on that stage will help him more, you guys aren’t playing in front of anybody, you’re playing in back gyms. But nothing changed. All these teams, all these great players, he dominated them — just dominated, locking all those dudes up. UCLA and all these schools, everybody, were watching. They were all at the games. But nothing changed. It was all BS.”

Part of it was Southern California happened to be graced with athletic wings that year. UCLA got Honeycutt. Arizona got Williams. USC got a commitment from Hill before he changed his mind and went to Arizona as well. All three would be NBA draft picks (Williams was No. 2 overall the year Leonard went No. 15) and spent time in the league.

Part of it was position-less basketball, so accepted in today’s game, had not gone mainstream. Fisher and the Aztecs were ahead of the curve, recruiting long, versatile, athletic wings who didn’t necessarily fit into a defined box but could guard multiple positions and were equally comfortable on the perimeter as under the basket — Wade, Spain, Randy Holcomb, Mohamed Abukar, Marcus Slaughter, Billy White.

Says Fisher: “I sat and listened to (a Pac-12 coach) say: ‘He’s a tweener. He’s not big enough to be a 4, he’s not skilled enough to be a 3.’ We just thought, man oh man, this guy’s a player. You find ways to get those guys on the floor. I try to correct people every time they say it. Kawhi was not a 4-man if you had to put a position on him in college. Kawhi played all over for us.

“There’s no question that helped us. We told him that: ‘You’re going to play everywhere.’ We referenced (Michigan’s) Jalen Rose, a point guard who never played anywhere but inside in high school. We were going to give him freedom to be who he was.”

Part of it was Fisher and Dutcher, from their days coaching Chris Webber and Michigan’s Fab Five, had a better appreciation for hand size in basketball. Others looked at his shooting stroke, which was awkwardly launched from behind his head. Fisher and Dutcher looked at the catcher’s mitt launching it.

“Right away, you shake hands and you can’t help but notice; you’re engulfed,” Fisher says of hands that measure 11 1/4 inches wide and 9 3/4 inches from wrist to index finger. “I continue to say: Biggest hands I’ve ever seen since Chris Webber. And surest of hands. Not only big, but he’s like Chris. He could get his fingernail on a ball and he gets it.”

Part of it was social media wasn’t the force in grassroots basketball that it is today, with mix tapes and YouTube channels and breathless Twitter reports from tournaments during dead periods when college coaches aren’t allowed in the gym. You could recruit differently back then. You could out-evaluate and outwork other staffs, and you could do it without them finding out.

Part of it, too, was that Leonard was famously mute and hard to read. He didn’t always return phone messages or texts. He wasn’t big on conversation. During SDSU’s in-home visit, he sat there attentively with his enormous hands on his lap, and said little.

“He’s very intelligent,” Hutson says. “He has an opinion. He has a personality. But the best way to put it is, he’s not just going to waste words. We went into the home, and to tell you the truth I don’t know if Kawhi wanted us in the home or not. I couldn’t really tell you. You know, he didn’t say much at all.

“Coach (Fisher) got in the car and said, ‘There’s no way we’re getting this kid.’ I told him: ‘Look, now, we’re the only one doing this. I hear you, but no one else is doing this.’ “

Says Dutcher: “I remember driving up there after school and sitting there talking to him, and it was tough talking to him. It wasn’t like he was a bad kid. He had a smile on his face. He was happy to see you. He just wasn’t a big talker. Some people might recruit the heck of him and just think, ‘Well, the kid doesn’t like us. He never responds to us.’ That we hung in there and stayed with it was the key.”

SDSU was one of the first to offer him a scholarship. USD did. So did Santa Clara, Pepperdine and Long Beach — WCC schools, Big West schools. Colorado State was interested but didn’t offer. UNLV looked and left. The power conference programs all passed.

There was an open workout with Leonard that Dutcher and coaches from other programs attended.

“I’m not going to say the head coach’s name, but a Pac-12 staff was at the same workout,” Dutcher said. “I watched him and I got done with the workout and I called back to the office and said, ‘I think this guy is an NBA player.’ They left the same workout and didn’t think he was good enough for them.”

The summer AAU circuit ended in late July, and August became September and September became October. Leonard still hadn’t committed, and as much as the Aztecs coaches wanted to think they were the clubhouse leader, there was always the anxious, lingering sense of the unknown. The kid wouldn’t talk. He was hard to read. And someone else had to see what they did.

But on Oct. 22, a few weeks before the start of his senior season at King High, with little fanfare, the man of few words called the SDSU coaches and pledged his allegiance to the Aztecs. Such little fanfare that it appeared on the bottom of page D-5 in the Union-Tribune, as a three-paragraph note in a story with a headline about a women’s basketball player from a local high school committing to USD.

“Rated the 13th-best small forward in the state by Rivals.com,” the story said, “Leonard averaged 17.3 points and 6.5 rebounds last year in leading King to the Division I Southern Section championship game against Compton Dominguez.”

Hoopscoop.com rated him No. 83 nationally in the class of 2009, one spot behind Nick Lubick, a 6-8 forward from Massachusetts who would average 4.9 points in four seasons at Georgetown. The Long Beach Press-Telegram had him 28th in its prestigious Best of the West rankings.

Former USC assistant coach Bob Cantu told Yahoo a few years ago that, “to be honest, I felt like he was a mid-major post at the time.” UCLA assistant Scott Garson told Yahoo that they, too, were hung up on his college position and “didn’t go on him in time.”

Their oops moment came during his senior season, when he averaged 22.6 points and 13.1 rebounds, when King took down a Santa Ana Mater Dei team ranked No. 1 nationally with five starters all headed to prominent Div. I programs. Leonard had 11 points and 20 rebounds in the 71-56 victory; Mater Dei’s Travis and David Wear, 6-10 brothers bound for North Carolina, had 12 rebounds between them.

It was a proud moment for Fisher and his staff, and a scary one. Would someone swoop in and big-time them?

But, it turns out, Leonard is fiercely loyal.

To this day, his circle of trust remains tight in an era of entourages spilling out of stretch limousines. He finally broke down and bought a Porsche early in his NBA career at his friends’ behest, but on most days still drove the silver Chevy Malibu he had in college. When that died, he got the ’97 Chevy Tahoe he had in high school that was sitting in his grandmother’s driveway, fixed it up and drove that.

“We had a conversation one day on the way to school,” Kim Robertson, his single mother, told the Union-Tribune a decade ago. “I said, ‘UCLA and USC will come after you. Do you want to go there instead?’ He looked at me and said, ‘No, it’s too late.’ And that was it. We never talked about it again.

“What people don’t understand is Kawhi doesn’t really care about the hype, or about this big name or that big name. That’s not what he’s about. He just wants to play basketball, that’s it.”

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©2019 The San Diego Union-Tribune

Visit The San Diego Union-Tribune at www.sandiegouniontribune.com

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