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San Antonio Spurs

This Date in NBA History (Dec. 26): Kawhi Leonard and Kyrie Irving make NBA debuts

The 2020-21 NBA season isn't the first to begin in late December.

With the lockout-shortened 2011-12 NBA season beginning on Christmas Day, a number of notable rookies debuts came as the calendar year was coming to a close. On Dec. 26, 2011, No. 1 overall pick Kyrie Irving of the Cleveland Cavaliers and No. 15 overall pick Kawhi Leonard of the San Antonio Spurs each took an NBA floor for the first time.

Irving, who was selected first overall after one year at Duke University, made his first-ever NBA start in his debut at just 19 years old. He and the Cavs hosted a Toronto Raptors team that featured another former No. 1 overall pick in Andrea Bargnani along with DeMar DeRozan and José Calderón.

It was a mostly forgettable night for Irving, who finished with six points (on 2-for-12 shooting), seven assists and three rebounds in 26 minutes of action and Cleveland suffered a 104-96 loss to Toronto. It was also the debut of Kyrie's rookie teammate, Tristan Thompson, who came off the bench to finish with 12 points and five rebounds in 17 minutes of action against his hometown team.

As for Leonard, the debut was similar as far as shooting struggles went but different as it related to roles and outcome. In a reserve role, Kawhi finished with six points (on 2-for-9 shooting) and six rebounds (four offensive) in 13 minutes of action but the Spurs earned a 95-82 home win over the Memphis Grizzlies.

Leonard would go on to appear in 64 of a possible 66 games in his rookie season, making 39 starts and posting averages of 7.9 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.3 steals and 1.1 assists per game to earn All-Rookie First Team honours.

The Spurs finished the season with the league's best record at 50-16, qualifying for the postseason, where they would sweep the first two rounds before falling to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals.

Irving's debut was one of the low points of a rookie season that saw him start in all 51 games that he appeared in. While Cleveland finished with a 21-45 record, Kyrie posted averages of 18.5 points, 5.4 assists and 3.7 rebounds on .469/.399/.872 shooting splits, which were good for All-Rookie First Team honours as well as the Rookie of the Year award. Leonard finished fourth in Rookie of the Year voting.

In the years since we've watched Kyrie (six) and Kawhi (four) make a combined 10 All-Star Game appearances and a combined six NBA Finals appearances, with each player making three apiece. Irving's lone title came as he hit one of the biggest shots in NBA history while Leonard has won two titles and two NBA Finals MVP awards.

With all the two have already accomplished, there is much more left for them to achieve in their careers. And it all began on Dec. 26, 2011.

Also on Dec. 26…

  • Both Kemba Walker and Isaiah Thomas also made their NBA debuts in 2011
  • Marcus Camby, then with the Denver Nuggets, blocked 10 shots in a win over the Milwaukee Bucks in 2007.
  • In 2001, Tim Duncan scored a career-high 53 points in a Spurs loss to the Dallas Mavericks.
  • Hall of Famer Jason Kidd was traded from the Mavericks to the Phoenix Suns in 1996
  • In 1976, Spurs guard Larry Kenon set an NBA record with 11 steals in a win over the Kansas City Kings.

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