Free from ‘San Antonio Mafia,’ Kawhi Leonard Is Everything Raptors Hoped for

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Free from ‘San Antonio Mafia,’ Kawhi Leonard Is Everything Raptors Hoped for
Utah Jazz forward Royce O'Neale (23) pulls down a rebound as Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard (2) defends in the first half during an NBA preseason basketball game Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2018, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

B/R

The air of suspense is already apparent, and, as the wins pile up for the Toronto Raptors, the question everyone wants Kawhi Leonard to answer is sure to only loom larger: Are you staying? Asked at his first press conference after being dealt to the Raptors by the San Antonio Spurs, Leonard essentially said he didn’t know yet. Canadians, being a polite bunch, haven’t asked since. Now every move, word, gesture, rare facial expression is captured and examined for clues. Teammates, along with Raptors coaches and executives, are asked what they’ve learned about him in their first few months together, which is another way of asking if they know the answer to the other question.

The answer to another equally important question, though, is taking shape. Which is: After missing most of his seventh season in the league and leaving a franchise seemingly tailor-made for a shy superstar, exactly who is Kawhi Leonard?

The answer, so far: not the inscrutable, aloof guy he was made out to be by last year’s events in San Antonio, when it was whispered that Leonard over-dramatized a quad injury merely to get out of town.

Take this early November game in Sacramento, for example. He logs 31 minutes and grabs 11 rebounds to go with his 25 points against the Kings. After the game, he tells the media waiting by his locker to interview the other Raptors first. Soon he can be seen in the training room going through a split-squat stretching exercise as physiotherapist Alex McKechnie, the team’s director of sports science, pays close attention to his right thigh and knee.

Finished with that, Leonard sits down at his locker, wraps ice bags around both knees, sticks his feet in a bucket of ice and chats with his locker mate, Danny Green, before showering and then addressing the media. 

“He’s a hard worker,” said first-year Raptors head coach Nick Nurse, “and a really good dude.”

Though Kyle Lowry has made little secret he misses DeMar DeRozan, he has acknowledged privately how special a talent Leonard is.

Though Kyle Lowry has made little secret he misses DeMar DeRozan, he has acknowledged privately how special a talent Leonard is.Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Adds point guard Kyle Lowry, who wasn’t happy about seeing his friend DeMar DeRozan get traded for Leonard: “He’s a really cool guy. He’s a good man. A fun guy. And he does talk to his teammates.”

One Eastern Conference executive insists Leonard never deserved to be viewed any other way, but being in conflict with one of the league’s most successful franchises—and coaches in Gregg Popovich—put him in the crosshairs of anyone who had to pick a side to blame.

“The San Antonio mafia is real,” the executive said. “When the Godfather (Popovich) speaks, they’re coming for you. He’s the nicest kid in the world and all of a sudden he’s an evil villain? He’s not an angry kid. He’s a sweetheart.”

No one was saying that about Leonard five months ago. There were conflicting reports surrounding a quad injury that limited him to nine games, reports that raised questions about its severity and his physical toughness. Rumors had him being upset that he wasn’t getting the endorsements and national recognition a player of his ability might warrant, thanks to San Antonio being a small market and the team’s custom of keeping the media at arm’s length. He was supposedly sick of the Spurs’ vaunted culture and homesick for Southern California. There was a players-only meeting in which he was confronted by the other Spurs about his commitment to them. Popovich flew to San Diego to meet with Leonard, presumably to plead with him to remain a Spur. The drama finally ended with Leonard and Danny Green being dealt to the Raptors for DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a protected future first-round pick.

There were major questions about just what Toronto was getting and for how long. Did he bail on his teammates? Was the quad injury really that severe? What was his priority, chasing another championship or living closer to where he grew up, Riverside, California? Would he even show up in Toronto, and if he did, would he use the same tactic he allegedly used in San Antonio to get moved again?

The hope, of course, was that Toronto would get the Leonard who was a two-time All-NBA first-teamer, champion, Finals MVP and heir presumptive to Tim Duncan as the most low-maintenance superstar in the league.

People who have been around him this season believe Leonard has been all that and more.

Long thought to be the heir to Tim Duncan's leadership position in San Antonio, Leonard's leg injury and reported lack of trust in the Spurs medical team eventually prompted Gregg Popovich and the franchise to trade him to Toronto last summer.

Long thought to be the heir to Tim Duncan’s leadership position in San Antonio, Leonard’s leg injury and reported lack of trust in the Spurs medical team eventually prompted Gregg Popovich and the franchise to trade him to Toronto last summer.Darren Abate/Associated Press/Associated Press

“He seems more aggressive,” Sacramento Kings guard Yogi Ferrell said. “Maybe now that he’s with a new organization, he wants to make a statement to the rest of the NBA. It’s all about how you fit with an organization, and right now he looks like he fits better with Toronto than he did in San Antonio.”

Ferrell isn’t alone. After the Raptors dispatched the Kings, 114-105, to push their record to 11-1 and complete the first undefeated road trip four games or longer in franchise history, commentator and former swingman Doug Christie said, “He scored an eeeeasssy 25. I think he’s kind of opening it up. He looks in control.”

Leonard acknowledged that the Raptors offense affords him greater freedom. “It’s a lot different,” he said. “With Kyle, he likes to push the pace a lot. It’s just a whole different style of play. Coach Pop and Nick Nurse are totally different coaches. This is [Nurse’s] first year, so he’s still learning on the fly. Obviously, coach Pop, being with the same organization for 22 years, so, um, you really can’t compare them. It’s very different.”

As for Ferrell’s observation, Leonard said: “I look more aggressive? The offense is a little freer, but I guess people forgot just from one year [away]. I used to take 17 to 18 shots and averaged 25 points.”

An Eastern Conference scout agreed that the Raptors’ simpler style allows Leonard to be more aggressive.

“They don’t have a lot of the same structure San Antonio did,” the scout said. “Pop was great at getting Kawhi the ball in his sweet spots, but there was always structure to it. Toronto is playing so free and fast that the defense doesn’t know with as much certainty when and where he’s going to get the ball. He is definitely handling the ball more in random pick-and-roll situations as well as set pick-and-roll calls.”

Though now playing in a Raptors offense that is more free-flowing than that of the Spurs, Leonard is averaging as many shot attempts per game as he did in his last near-healthy season in San Antonio.

Though now playing in a Raptors offense that is more free-flowing than that of the Spurs, Leonard is averaging as many shot attempts per game as he did in his last near-healthy season in San Antonio.Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

No matter what Leonard does this season, the mysteries surrounding just what went wrong in San Antonio last season and where he’ll be playing next season will hang in the air.

The Spurs’ organizational structure is legendary and includes a stone wall between any internal issues and the public or media. Leonard, while clearly wanting to be elsewhere as much as Minnesota‘s Jimmy Butler did, never publicly violated the team code, while Butler, now in Philadelphia, was very vocal about his desire to be elsewhere. Both ultimately got their wish to be moved, but Leonard arguably had his character impugned far more harshly.

“Jimmy was like, ‘Get me out of here and I’m going to tear down this thing on the way out,'” the executive said. “Kawhi doesn’t talk to the media. Why would he call someone in the media to kill San Antonio for him? Let’s face it: San Antonio screwed up.”

Leonard’s reticence makes sense when one understands his devotion to economy—as in the sparing use of available resources. The next time you see him put flourish into a fake will be the first time. He gets to his place of operation on the floor with a physique surprising in its similarity to those of LeBron James and Blake Griffin and then does whatever needs to be done with as little wasted motion as possible. His three-point shot is flat-footed, and his step-back jumper is more of a slide-back. Even his free-throw form is a study in minimalism—no knee bend, no elaborate pre-shot spin or dribble.

He is the quintessential direct-line player, his drives barely deviating between his starting point and the rim; once he angles one of his shoulders past a defender, he’s going until someone or something makes him stop.

With Leonard playing a leading role on both sides of the court for the Raptors, Toronto ranks fourth this season in point differential, behind Milwaukee, Golden State and Portland.

With Leonard playing a leading role on both sides of the court for the Raptors, Toronto ranks fourth this season in point differential, behind Milwaukee, Golden State and Portland.Matt York/Associated Press

Celebrate a big play with a shimmy or pantomime or any extravagant use of added energy? Forget it.

The same goes with words. It was assumed Leonard did not like to be interviewed because in San Antonio he rarely was. The media who are around him on a regular basis in Toronto, however, say he can be perfectly engaging and then suddenly an invisible timer will go off in his head that will make him abruptly end the interview. Same goes with actual sentences. Once he feels he has conveyed whatever he wants to say, he will stop, even if the sentence isn’t complete.

General manager Bobby Webster accompanied the team on its four-game swing, presumably for the front office to take every and any opportunity to get to know him better. With one of the stops being in L.A., it would also be prudent to be around to monitor with whom he might cross paths, as well, but Raptors players and executives downplay the idea that they’re in any way anxious about fighting off Leonard’s other suitors. Lowry said he will not make a point of trying to convince him to stay. “I don’t ever do any of that stuff,” he said. “My teammates are my brothers. Above anything else, I want them to do whatever makes them happy.”

Perhaps out of deference to his friend and former teammate DeRozan, Lowry has been circumspect publicly about how much Leonard has improved the team. But a league source said Lowry privately has expressed amazement at just how good Leonard is. “Lowry has told people, ‘This guy is something else,'” the source said.

Is it something that could propel the Raptors to their first Finals appearance? That remains to be seen. All that seems certain is this: He’s something other than he was made out to be in San Antonio last season. For the Raptors, for now, that appears to be plenty. 

   

Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @RicBucher.

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