How Kawhi Leonard has the Raptors primed for the playoffs

It’s Jan. 3, 2019, inside the AT&T Center in San Antonio, and Kawhi Leonard, on the other side of the layup line on the court where he once hoisted a championship trophy and a Finals MVP, stares into the distance and claps alongside his new Toronto Raptors teammates as an ocean of cheers — directed at guard Danny Green, the other piece of the deal that shipped Leonard away from San Antonio after his trade demand — turns into boos.

Leonard wears the same distant and sad-eyed look throughout the tribute video (“I didn’t look at it,” he says. "I don’t ever look at the Jumbotron before the game.”), the cascade of jeers, and the game that ended in a cathartic blowout victory for the Spurs. Only while leaving the court did Leonard betray any emotion, smiling his wolfish smile while embracing his former coach, Gregg Popovich, and sharing a few words that, you guessed it, remain private.

“I embraced it, enjoyed the moment,” Leonard says after the game. “It’s only gonna make me better.”

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Better. Leonard, a marquee free agent on the tail-end of a one-year partnership the Raptors hope to extend this summer, filters every experience through one lens: Could it help him grow as a basketball player? If so, bring it on. Anything else is a distraction he relentlessly sifts out, as irrelevant as the many things that rule the lives of the modern player and person: social media, branding, lengthy interviews and external gratification. Even his return.

He wasn’t phased by that,” teammate OG Anunoby says. He pauses and smiles, scrunching his chin into his bottom lip. “I like that.”

Kawhi Leonard is trying to lead a new era of Raptors basketball. (Getty Images)
Kawhi Leonard is trying to lead a new era of Raptors basketball. (Getty Images)

But Serge Ibaka, who has faced his own return to the Oklahoma City Thunder, sensed Leonard was feeling the weight of the moment. “When you used to play at some place for so many years, you got fans coming, attention of the media, in your mind it’s like, ‘I wanna play my best basketball.’ It’s a lot mentally.” But according to multiple teammates, Leonard never brought it up. It’s the Kawhi way: to unspeak things out of existence.

Leonard, the rental that cost Toronto DeMar DeRozan, the most beloved player in franchise history, might stay. He might go. Maybe he already knows. Maybe he’ll weigh everything after the playoffs and a potential Finals run. And we still aren’t sure what really happened between him and the Spurs’ medical staff. But the Raptors have thrived despite the questions, winning seven of their last eight regular-season games before Saturday’s Game 1 matchup against the Orlando Magic in the first round, while potential foes like the Celtics, Sixers and Warriors deal with tension that likely won’t be resolved until July 1. From his rise from obscurity to superstardom to the Raptors marching to the playoffs drama-free, the rigidity of Leonard’s focus helps him bend reality to his will.

Everyone thinks it’s gotta be something deeper,” says Clint Parks, Leonard’s high school trainer. “When I think about him, it’s simple. It’s his ability to keep it simple when everybody else wants to make it harder than it has to be.”

*****

Leonard’s ambitions, if out of sight, have always been grand. As a relatively anonymous junior at Martin Luther King High School in Riverside, California, he told Parks he wanted to be the best player in the world.

That was around the time he saw Leonard’s AAU team get pounded by Renardo Sidney and Lance Stephenson, two top-flight high school recruits. “But he just wasn’t afraid to compete. He was guarding both those guys. It didn’t matter who you were or what people were saying about you, how highly you were ranked or all that nonsense that everyone gets caught up in today. Once you stepped out on to that court, you were just another player to him. Even when he got to the league, when he was young, he was going toe-to-toe with LeBron. If you know Kawhi, then that’s him.”

Perception couldn’t trump reality on the hardwood. Imbued with a self-belief and a willingness to zone in on his weaknesses, Leonard was already developing what former Spurs assistant Chad Forcier calls the courageousness that allowed him to learn a move in practice one day and try it in a game the next day.

It’s been over a decade now, so Tim Sweeney, Leonard’s coach at Martin Luther King High School, can laugh when he recalls the game after the game. King, riding an unprecedented high behind Leonard, defeated Mater Dei, the No. 1 team in the nation, only to find itself trailing by double-digits late in the third quarter against Tesero, the 19th-ranked school in California.

“Team’s playing horrible, uninspired,” he recalls. “We’re just coming off the biggest win in California history. I’m like, ‘Oh god, we can’t lose this game.’ ”

Irate, he called a timeout and started screaming. He was mid-tirade, saliva spewing from his mouth, when an unlikely voice caught his attention. “Coach! Coach!”

“You’re spitting on us,” continued Leonard, gripping Sweeney’s shoulder with his giant adolescent hands. “Calm down. I got this. We got this.”

“All right,” said Sweeney, stopping the timeout in its tracks. “Go!” King came back and won by nine before losing to Westchester two games later, sending Leonard San Diego-bound.

*****

A solitary figure stands still in an empty court and unfurls his shot eight feet from the rim, working on his form. Then he turns his back to the basket and hones his post moves, before drilling jumpers off the dribble and the catch. Leonard still has the code to the practice facility at San Diego State University, where thousands of clanked jump shots turned him into a 3-point sniper. He works out there every summer. “It’s like he’s preparing for Game 7 of the NBA Finals,” says former Aztecs coach Steve Fisher of Leonard’s workouts, which are now the stuff of legend.

In high school, following a three-hour practice over Christmas break, Sweeney couldn’t get the school’s alarm system to re-activate. That’s when he found a piece of tape stuck to a latch on the door. He took it off and went back into the control room. Still no go. It turns out that Leonard and his pals — including Tony Snell, who now plays forward for the Milwaukee Bucks — were sneaking back into the gym at night, running drills and playing intense three-on-three sessions.

“Everything he does is with purpose,” adds Fisher. “He’s focused. He knows what he wants, has a routine on how he wants to get there, and does not want a lot of distractions, which is why he prefers to be in the gym alone.”

But this season, Leonard has occasionally lifted opened the curtain for his teammates, giving the organization its first inside look at the routine of a Finals MVP. Anunoby, for one, is constantly picking his brain. “What’s he seeing from me? Am I forcing things? Am I using my hands too much? Being too passive? Too aggressive?” He takes note of how detail-oriented Leonard is, his economy of movement, how he always finds the right moment to get his hands on his opponents’ flimsy bounces.

“He just knows what his work day is and there's nothing that bothers that work day for him,” says Raptors coach Nick Nurse. “He's not ever rushed or panicked or trying to get out early or any of that stuff. He knows what his work day is and he's not leaving until he gets that thing done, regardless. He just accepts that.” According to Fisher, Leonard is a culture-setter by way of mere existence, an example every coach can point to as an ascent rooted in good habits pushed to their logical extreme.

On Feb. 10, three days after Kevin Durant warred with the media over rumors he was headed to the New York Knicks, Kawhi Leonard stood in the visitors’ locker room at Madison Square Garden and batted away free-agency questions. “I want to focus on this season. We’re going to get there. We can talk about the game.” Eventually, most of the questions that could have served as distractions stopped being asked.

On Thursday’s episode of How Hungry Are You?, when host and teammate Serge Ibaka pressed Leonard about using Instagram, Leonard said, “I don’t need to. Anything that I do is always on that sh--, anyways. The Lab or the New Balance shoes, did I need to post anything or was it already all up on there?”

Despite the peer pressure, Ibaka appreciates Leonard’s quiet demeanor. “That helps big time. He don’t tweet nothing. He’s just quiet. It helps a lot with all those distractions going on outside. People try to guess what’s going on, what he’s going to do. The fact he’s so quiet, that’s helped a lot to just have the team in a position to be focused on being ready to play basketball.”

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