October 20, 2018
He arrived, to borrow from the great orator Winston Churchill, a riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, of whom everything was known but nothing was, really.
He showed up with a glittering past as an outstanding basketball player who hadn’t really played in an entire season. He arrived as an intensely private individual in this era of social media self-promotion. His first utterances, about what kind of man he was, elicited a deadpanned “I’m a fun guy.”
All’s good with Kawhi as Raptors’ season kicks off
No one really knew what to make of Kawhi Leonard when he first set foot in Toronto, the former San Antonio Spur acquired merely for longtime fan favourite DeMar DeRozan.
But any worries have dissipated, any concerns have been soothed because all that really matters is how he plays basketball. And he’s doing that about as well as anyone could have hoped.
“Well, our offence is kind of equal opportunity, right, but it always … tends to gravitate toward the guys who can score,” head coach Nick Nurse said as the pre-season unfolded. “The ball’s going to find him. He’s going to have a lot of chances.”
The pre-season was unspectacular from a statistical standpoint for the 27-year-old Leonard, but it is after all the pre-season and doesn’t count for anything. He played in just three of the five games, averaged 13.3 points per game on 10.7 field-goal attempts per game and missed a bunch of free throws. But he got through the games and the practices without incident and the bad right leg that limited him to nine games last season has not been an issue.
He has been his usual swarming, long-limbed, big-handed, disruptive influence on defence at times, a sure sign that he hasn’t lost anything from the skills that made him twice the NBA’s defensive player of the year and the most valuable player of the 2014 NBA final.
That versatility plays perfectly into the style that Nurse wants the Toronto Raptors to play; Leonard’s ability to guard multiple positions allows for a switch-everything defence that doesn’t put the Raptors at a positional deficiency. And if Toronto needs a lockdown defender on a hot opponent, they’ve got one in the six-foot-seven Leonard.
“I want to do great things,” Leonard said recently. “So I’m going to make sure that I put all my effort on the court, each and every night.”
His ability to be an above-average player both offensively and defensively is what makes him most valuable to his team, and his impact on the game can vary from night to night or even quarter to quarter.
“I think there is a lot of length and speed and athleticism and a lot of want-to showing up right now. It’s fun to watch,” Nurse said of the team anchored by Leonard. “There were some stretches in this pre-season it was more fun to watch them on defence than offence. That’s a good way to live.”
Leonard’s interaction with the public and the press has been fine. He has not blown off interview requests and he answers questions honestly if not loquaciously. Small talk may not be his thing, but who cares?
His teammates have found him engaging and possessing leadership qualities that franchises can use. Danny Green, innately familiar with Leonard from their time together in San Antonio, lauded him for his new-found willingness to speak his mind and take control. Teammates who didn’t know him well wonder what all the fuss was about.
“He does have a quiet demeanour, no question,” said C.J. Miles. “But for what I was expecting it’s 10 times more communication than I would have thought just from what you see and what you hear. But he has been great. He is sharing his knowledge. He obviously plays hard. He is a great defender and he does things the right way.
“So him having more of a voice will only help us because he already — with his play — he says enough ... Having him lead the young guys and him stepping forward to help us in situations is always going to be great.”
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