- - Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Introverts get a raw deal in our society. When they’re not overlooked, they’re often undervalued. We give them little attention and usually less appreciation.

Today, we make room for a remarkably narrow range of personality styles,” author Susan Cain writes in “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.” “We’re told that to be great is to be bold, to be happy is to be sociable. We see ourselves as a nation of extroverts — which means we’ve lost sight of who really are. Depending on which study you consult, one third to one half of Americans are introverts.”

And they have a new champion in Kawhi Leonard, who in his entire career has shared fewer public comments than LeBron James uttered after becoming a Laker.

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In terms of media profile, Q-rating and public persona, Leonard is the proverbial mouse wetting cotton. But on the court, Toronto’s superstar has loudly inserted himself into arguments about the NBA’s top player.

The matter is settled if you ask Raptors president Masai Ujiri. “He’s been unbelievable,” Ujiri said after the Raptors advanced to the NBA Finals. “He’s the best player in the league and we’re happy he’s in Toronto.”

Leonard has averaged 31 points and 8.8 rebounds while shooting 50.7 percent in the postseason. He hit a buzzer-beater to win Game 7 against Philadelphia and grabbed 17 boards in closing out Milwaukee. His play while guarding likely MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo served to remind us that Leonard is a two-time Defensive Player of the Year. The poster dunk reminded us of Leonard’s two-way capabilities.

But Leonard’s steadfast reluctance to acknowledge himself sets him apart.

When the Cavaliers faced playoff elimination in 2015, James said he was “confident because I’m the best player in the world. It’s that simple.” Kevin Durant was unmoved last month upon hearing suggestions that he should be more aggressive. “I’m Kevin Durant,” he said. “You know who I am. Y’all know who I am.”

James has been the consensus pick as the NBA’s best player and Durant generally has received the most nods as first runner-up. Leonard spent his entire career as a vanilla wafer in flavorless San Antonio before being traded to Toronto, another media market where it’s easy to be overlooked even if you try to stand out.

Leonard’s performance this postseason has brought him a new wave of accolades, and he’ll command the spotlight in these Finals — opposed to the supporting role he played behind Tim Duncan and Tony Parker in the 2013 Finals. Leonard had faded from memory a bit after playing just nine games with the Spurs last season, but he responded to his new environment with career-high averages in scoring (26.6) and rebounding (7.3), while the Raptors limited his “load” to 60 games.

“I worked so hard to get to this point with the season I had last year,” Leonard said after Toronto advanced to its first Finals in franchise history. “Always betting on myself and knowing what I feel and what’s right for me. I ended up coming here with a great group of guys, a lot of talent. I strove with them every day. I bought into their system.

“I just want to win. I don’t care about being the best player. I want to be the best team.”

He’ll probably have to settle for best player consideration. Golden State has sewn up the best team debate — with or without Durant — and should prevail for its fourth title in five seasons. But the absence of surrounding stars around will set Leonard further apart.

James had Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, and Kyrie Irving in Cleveland. Durant has Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. Leonard has done a true Superman act, putting the Raptors on his back and carrying them where they couldn’t go before his arrival.

We’ve heard from Leonard more this postseason than the previous seasons combined, and at least another week-and-a-half of his thoughts are ahead. There’s almost zero chance he’ll make headlines with anything he says.

Sports would be pretty boring if everyone was as close-lipped. We need something to talk about before and after games. Athletes who oblige add color to the black-and-white scores and statistics.

But on the flip side, Leonard’s approach is refreshing. He doesn’t come off as mad or brooding, just someone who isn’t that interested in sharing. The same is true for many introverts.

As long as we fully appreciate their gifts — and they don’t keep those to themselves — there’s no problem.

Deron Snyder writes his award-winning column for The Washington Times on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

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