In his first public appearance as a member of the Toronto Raptors, Kawhi Leonard sounded like a man who had been prepared for every question he faced at media day about his health, the trade from the San Antonio Spurs and his oft-reported interest in signing elsewhere as a free agent in 2019.
When in doubt, Leonard talked about the city of Toronto, Raptors fans and his love for the game of basketball. He consistently said his focus was on the present and winning a championship this year. This is the playbook for anyone looking to endear himself to his current team and avoid commitment. It also serves to deter persistent questions about his playing future, while leaving them unanswered.
So, here’s what we learned, and didn’t learn, from Leonard’s 20-minute session with the media.
Kawhi Leonard can actually laugh
We like to think of Leonard as a basketball-playing cyborg devoid of emotion, because he projects himself as one with the media, his teammates play up the narrative. He’s basically made a brand of it.
So, it was no surprise that when Leonard was asked what he wants Torontonians to know about him, he said in his signature monotone, “Um, I’m a fun guy. Obviously I love the game of basketball.”
It was surprising, though, to see him laugh, even awkwardly:
Kawhi Leonard is laughing during his press conference!! 😱
— Yahoo Sports NBA (@YahooSportsNBA) September 24, 2018
Leonard considers himself healthy ‘right now’
A mysterious quad injury limited Leonard to all but nine games with the Spurs last season. What was already a perplexing issue worsened as the season wore on, with the Spurs clearing Leonard for a return and the two-time Defensive Player of the Year seeking a second opinion. He ultimately took his rehab to New York, where he stayed during San Antonio’s first-round playoff series, and the divide between organization and player widened until he requested a trade from the only NBA team he’d known.
The question for teams inquiring about Leonard centered around not only his health and free agency, and the Raptors gambled on both. In Leonard’s eyes, the first half of that parlay is a lock to pay off.
“Right now, I’m feeling great,” he said, “ready to play basketball.”
“Right now” isn’t as reassuring as you might like if you’re the Raptors, but Leonard said he spent the summer trying to get his body back to full strength and feels ready to take on the season, which is more encouraging than anything he said in the final months of the 2017-18 campaign in San Antonio.
Nurse, asked if Kawhi's health is going to be a problem: "Not from what I've seen, at all. But a guy that hasn't played that much (over the last year), we're going to monitor it."
— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) September 24, 2018
Asked what he hopes to gain from the rest of his career, Leonard cited the usual — championships and record-setting performances — but he also said his No. 1 goal was to have “a long, healthy career,” which seemed to imply there was some lingering concern about his longterm status. Or maybe he just doesn’t want to go through what he did last season again. What that was, exactly, we still don’t know.
Leonard avoided questions about his future
Also buried in that same response to a question about his career goals was Leonard’s desire “to be able to be dominant wherever I land.” Wherever I land. That, too, should tingle your Spidey sense, because Leonard has full control over where he lands in 2019 free agency. He is keeping his options open, and that’s cool, because there is really no reason for Leonard to commit to Toronto right now.
Leonard faced a string of questions about his playing future. The answers were at times encouraging, bewildering and philosophical. Whatever your interpretation, they were filled with age-old cliches.
“I want to play here,” Leonard told reporters in Toronto. “As long as I have on a jersey, I want to play basketball. I came here with an open mind. I want to do great things, so I want to make sure I put all my effort on the court each and every night, and by winning games, this is how you get star-caliber players to want to come here and play.”
“I want to play here,” “I came here with an open mind,” and, “This is how you get star-caliber players to want to come here and play,” are all things you want to hear from Leonard if you’re the Raptors. Is he saying, if the Raptors win, he will be want to continue playing in Toronto? Is he encouraging Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri to chase other stars — like, say, Jimmy Butler? That part he left vague.
“I look at it as day-to-day process,” added Leonard. “My focus is on this year, this group that I have and striving to get to a championship. We all want to win, and if you’re looking in the future, you’re going to trip over the present, so my focus is on this year, tomorrow and just keep going after that.”
That’s all a fancy way of saying, We’ll see how this year plays out. That’s better than saying flat-out that he wants to play elsewhere, as some have suggested, but it’s also not dispelling those reports.
Where Leonard remained mum, Ujiri did his best to fill the void:
“The narrative of not wanting to come to this city is gone,” said Ujiri. “That’s old, and we should move past that. Believe in this city, believe in yourselves. First of all, here in Toronto, we have to believe in ourselves. We should stop talking about coming to this city or wanting to come to this city. That’s old talk. We want to win. We have a privilege and an opportunity to be one of the NBA teams. That’s a huge privilege for us, and it’s our jobs here to try and bring these players. It’s our jobs here to try and sell it to these players here. But we’re proud of who we are, we’re proud to have these guys, we’re proud of the young players we have, we’re proud to have what Kyle [Lowry] and everybody has done here, so let’s be proud and move past that narrative of wanting to stay here or wanting to come here.”
Except, it’s hard to move past that narrative until we find out whether or not Leonard will re-sign in Toronto, because right now we still don’t know if he wanted to go there or wants to stay there. We do know, as Leonard said, he “want[s] to play here,” which keeps us in the present. Speaking of which …
Leonard has no regrets about how he left San Antonio
“I have no regrets,” Leonard said when asked about his San Antonio exit, “but I want to focus on this team, this journey that we have in front of us today and stay in the present time and not look back.”
Don’t look back, don’t look forward. Just play for Toronto now. That’s not the worst thing for Leonard or the Raptors. They got through media day without issue, which is the first step toward getting through a season without issue, which is the next step toward getting through free agency without issue. One step at a time. Toronto will have to be comfortable with that from Leonard this season.
And hopefully there are more laughs together down the road.
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