Record-breaker Leonard evolves into leader, peer advocate for Colorado

Kennedy Leonard scans the court. Photo by Tim Benko.
Kennedy Leonard scans the court. Photo by Tim Benko.

Kennedy Leonard came into her senior season at Colorado with her usual bag of hoops tricks.

The star point guard is once again the team’s scoring leader, their on-court boss, and the personification of hustle and grit. In the Buff’s last game of 2018, Leonard broke the school’s all-time assists record – 612 – and is now creating a new one with each game outing, including an 11-assist performance in the team’s Pac-12 opener Friday. She ranks sixth in Division I in that category, with a 7.2 per-game average.

But if her game has flourished during her time in Boulder, Leonard has grown as a person, a student and an athlete even more so. While never losing focus on the game she holds so dearly, she has expanded her focus outward to developing peer relationships, co-founding a peer advocacy program at the school and becoming a more vocal leader.

Coach JR Payne said Leonard’s evolvement has been impressive.

“She has lightened up a lot,” Payne said. “She’s very charming, and can speak to the little kids to come to our games. They adore her because she gets down to their level and talks to them.”

“She can speak to athletic directors, regents of the University. She understands the social part of it and the importance of her role in appearing on posters and advertisements. She came to my daughter’s game one recent Saturday morning, just to cheer for my kids.”

The road to the present day, however, was not easy.

A decorated high school athlete, Leonard was ranked ninth at point guard and 40th overall out of Southlake, Texas, when she signed with Colorado. But in her freshman year in Boulder, despite averaging 12.1 points and 4.63 assists per game, the team racked up a 7-23 record.

To say it was hard on Leonard is an understatement.

“I can’t even begin to articulate what going 7-23 does to you,” she said. “Basketball had always been everything to me, and it was a safe place to get away. But during seven-game losing streaks, you forget how much you love it, and it becomes a chore. I had never had been through that before. I had always been: eat, sleep and breathe basketball.”

The Buffs fired the previous coach at the end of the season and hired Payne, but Leonard was already out the door.

“Kennedy had asked for, and got her release, before I got here,” Payne said. “We talked on the phone, about what we wanted to do with the program and how we wanted to do it. She decided she wanted to stay in this place. She really was my first recruit.”

Coach and player bonded quickly. Payne called Kennedy the team’s hardest worker; Leonard said Payne is “like a mother.”

In Payne’s first season, Colorado started well and picked up steam, finishing with a 17-15 record and advancing to the third round of the WNIT before bowing out. Leonard was the team’s top scorer, averaging 17.1 points per outing, and dishing 5.75 assists.

Last year the Buffs began with a strong pre-conference run, but they stumbled when they reached Pac-12 play. Despite winning their first conference tournament game in several years, they failed to make the postseason because, Leonard said, they “should have won four or five more games.”

She played through plantar fasciitis, yet increased her assists average, and she still thinks of it as a good year. And despite any disappointment, Leonard has kept the big picture in mind and remains optimistic.

“It’s been a good process for me, though it hasn’t been the easiest,” she said. “We haven’t made an NCAA Tournament yet, but if I hadn’t gone through everything I have here, I wouldn’t be the person I am.”

“I’m hoping this year in the Pac-12 that we can reach where we’re supposed to be. I’m trying to leave behind a legacy.”

Payne, who brought Leonard to three straight Pac-12 media day appearances as the face of the team, said she has already left a lasting mark on the University.

“Kennedy’s going to go down as one of the best and most successful players to ever wear a Colorado jersey,” Payne said. “She owns the single-season assist record twice over – she broke the record and then she broke her own record. Now she has the career assists mark. To have that at the point guard position is remarkable because all those assists are someone else’s points.”

Leonard has done it the right way, too.

“She is an example of time spent and dedication to not just basketball, but the weight room, nutrition, and making good decisions about how to use her free time,” Payne said.

Coach JR Payne and Kennedy Leonard confer at a game pause. Photo courtesy of Colorado Athletics.
Coach JR Payne and Kennedy Leonard confer at a game pause. Photo courtesy of Colorado Athletics.

Though her name is already in the school’s record books, Leonard’s impression will also be left with all of her peers in athletics at Colorado.

Along with soccer standout Jalen Tompkins, last fall Leonard co-founded the Bolder Buffs – a group of about 20 student-athletes who train each other on how to recognize when their peers are struggling with mental health issues. They work with the school’s sports psychologist and counselor using what they call “the three R’s”: recognize, respond and refer.

The goal is not only to make mental health a priority, but to create a safe space where athletes know that it is OK to talk if they’re struggling.

The idea began as a class project for Tompkins, who quickly asked Leonard to be involved. Getting on board was a no-brainer.

“Some of my extended family members have struggled with mental illness, and I love to help people,” Leonard said. “A lot of athletes go through things, and there is a lot of stigma about it. Depression and mood swings are common. If you’re not playing well, that can lead to depression, and if you don’t know how to handle it, it can spiral.”

“I personally don’t experience those issues, but I have known others who have, and I don’t like seeing what they’ve gone through. I like being able to help people through those moments.”

Leonard and Tompkins worked to get representatives from every team on campus, from both genders and from various ethnic backgrounds, so all athletes would feel comfortable talking with someone. So far, the program has been successful.

“It’s good to know that there’s a place to go where it’s OK to not be OK,” said sophomore forward Annika Jank, also a member of Bolder Buffs.

Tompkins said the endeavor wouldn’t have happened without Leonard.

“She has such a passion for the project and for the group,” Tompkins said. “She has helped turn it into something that really helps people.”

Leonard has taken this new, more inclusive focus on to the basketball court, as well. A classic gym rat, she has always been laser-focused on the game and has typically put basketball before people, with the exception of her family.

“I’ve said she’s the hardest-working player I’ve ever coached as far as time and dedication to the game, because she’s always in the gym,” Payne said. “On days she’s dinged up, she thinks the trainer and I are conspiring against her. She wants every rep, and she’s secretly pissed when we sub her out in practice. Basketball is her first love.”

But the coach has noticed a change in her star player this season.

“She’s worked hard this year to be a teammate and to be invested in her teammates,” Payne said. “She’s always been just about the basketball: ‘if you’re doing other things, I’ll be in the gym.’ Now she is investing in relationships.”

Leonard said she has worked on changing so she can be a better leader in her last collegiate season.

“Even last year, if someone wouldn’t catch a pass, I’d get upset about it and wouldn’t handle it very well,” she said. “This year I made a conscious effort to let it go, knowing everybody would be looking at me. I want to lead by example.”

Payne has noticed the difference in her approach.

“We were up 30 a couple weeks ago and she didn’t get a chance to play as much,” Payne said. “I texted her later and said, ‘I’m proud of you for really celebrating on the bench.’ It hasn’t always been that way.”

Leonard’s more relaxed approach appears to be paying dividends in her game, too.

“This year she’s shooting the ball much better, and her shot selection is a lot better than what it has been,” Payne said. “When I got here she felt like she had to take 30 shots to help the team get better. She’s changed and developed, is more balanced and doesn’t rush things. The things we used to talk about a year ago, we don’t see that anymore.”

Most of the talking these days is by Leonard – to her teammates.

“She’s getting better at being vocal,” Payne said. “It’s night and day from where she used to be. She has always been one to lead by example. She’s not a yeller, but she’s worked hard to do a better job at that and be consistent at instructing. We have a point guard freshman, and she’s tried to explain and talk through things with her.”

Jank said she and her teammates appreciate it.

“Kennedy has really grown into her role,” Jank said. “We all look up to her because she works so hard in the gym, the weight room, and is aggressive on the court.”

Leonard hopes to play in the WNBA and overseas. When her playing career is done, she wants to coach.

“I want to coach at the college level, to coach and give back,” she said. “I have had coaches who have taught me things about life that others haven’t taught me, so I would hope I can give back.”

For now, however, Leonard’s focus is on getting her team to the postseason.

“My personal goals are to stay consistent – especially with my shooting percentage and assists – and do whatever I can do to help us get wins,” she said. “Whatever gets us closer to the NCAA Tournament. For me it’s never been about how many points I score, but doing whatever I can to get us there.”