Kawhi Leonard making Raptors’ big gamble pay off

TORONTO — When the Toronto Raptors made a franchise-changing trade this summer — sending DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a first-round pick to the San Antonio Spurs for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green — the rationale could be summed up in one sentence: The potential upside was worth the risk.

As the Raptors ready to host the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors on Thursday night in a nationally televised game that many are viewing as a potential NBA Finals preview, it looks like the gamble by Raptors president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri has paid off.

“It’s a great trade for Toronto, even if [Leonard] leaves,” one league executive said. “I just never saw them going any further than they had with DeMar.”

ESPN surveyed several NBA executives to gauge their thoughts on Leonard through six weeks, and how he has looked after spending virtually all of last season on the sidelines due to a quad injury. And while there was some debate over whether he is all the way back to what he was before the injury, there was no disputing the fact that Leonard is, at a minimum, back to playing like one of the league’s elite players once again.

“He’s pretty much back to his old self,” Green said. “Just physicality-wise of being able to sustain back-to-backs is the only thing. … He’s fresh, he’s playing at a high level, the level he normally plays at.”

Then Green smiled.

“I think he’s doing all right so far,” he said with a laugh.

Still, there was no guarantee that would be the case, which made the move a risky one for a Toronto team that was coming off a 59-win season and already had made a coaching change in hopes of reversing its postseason fortune.

Leonard played in only nine games last season because of tendinopathy in his left quad and has just this season remaining on his contract before he can enter free agency. There was no telling which version of Leonard would show up north of the border this season — or, once he got there, how he would like it.

Conversely, DeRozan, the leading scorer in Raptors history, was a franchise icon and arguably the greatest player in Toronto’s two-plus decades as an NBA city. He was the backbone of a team that has consistently been among the Eastern Conference’s best for half a decade.

But to Ujiri, a theoretically healthy Leonard represented the potential to be better than any other player on the Raptors’ roster, including DeRozan.

So far, Leonard has been exactly what the Raptors hoped for. His averages — 24.3 points, 8.6 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.8 steals per game — are in line with his numbers before he got hurt. In fact, he’s actually averaging, by a healthy margin, a career high in rebounds. And that’s while still trying to adjust to playing with a new team, and new teammates, for the first time in his career.

“I’m still learning my team,” he said after finishing with 17 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 steals in Toronto’s 122-114 win over Memphis on Tuesday, “and figuring out I don’t really have to do too much with all of this talent that we have.”

“It’s a great trade for Toronto, even if [Leonard] leaves. I just never saw them going any further than they had with DeMar.”
League executive on Kawhi Leonard trade

Meanwhile, the one area in which Leonard is currently struggling — he’s shooting 33 percent on 3-pointers — is likely to improve to his prior levels (he’s a career 38 percent shooter from 3) as the season progresses. Leonard attributed his lower percentage to challenging himself to take more difficult attempts.

“I’m trying to get better,” he said. “It’s easy to shoot a good 3-point percentage if you catch-and-shoot. I’m taking more shots off the dribble, more off the pick-and-roll, in transition. … I’m going to keep shooting. That’s how you get better.”

That’s why some executives around the league already see the player Leonard was before — the one nearly universally considered to be among the league’s top five talents overall, and its best two-way player.

“When he actually plays, the only player in the Eastern Conference worthy of debate with him is Giannis [Antetokounmpo],” one executive said. “The guy completely controls the game at both ends — scores at all three levels, gets wherever he wants off the dribble, plays to contact, smothers people defensively.

“And he isn’t even shooting well from the 3-point line yet.”

But that initial caveat — “when he actually plays” — is something that cropped up in a few conversations about Leonard. No one doubts he is still a brilliant player. But in asking whether he’s back to being among the league’s ultra-elite talents, people point to Toronto’s insistence on holding him out of at least one game in back-to-back sets so far this season.

“He plays, like, twice a week,” said one executive with a laugh. “He ain’t all the way back.”

Even when setting aside the debate over whether Leonard should — or needs to — play in every game, the general consensus was that he’s almost, but not quite, what he was in 2016-17, his last full season.

One executive said Leonard is “close to being back.” Another said he was “90 percent” of the player he was before.

The numbers back that up. According to Second Spectrum data, both Leonard’s points per direct isolation play and points per direct drive are down slightly from two seasons ago, prior to his injury. That season, Leonard scored 1.00 point off each direct isolation and 1.09 points off each direct drive. Those numbers are down to 0.88 and 1.01, respectively — each roughly 10 percent lower than they were in 2016-17.

One other notable person, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse, agrees that Leonard’s game still has room to grow. But while some may see that as a concern, it’s exactly the opposite for Nurse. It’s a reminder that, for as well as Leonard is playing now, this isn’t even the best possible version of this season’s Raptors.

“I’m kind of on both sides of the fence here,” Nurse said. “I’m probably delighted from my initial reaction to when we got him that 20 games, as in, ‘Would we be this far with him?’ As far as going through training camp and playing as many minutes and games, as far as how he’s playing.

“But I think there’s still a lot to come yet. I think he’s still ironing out his 3-point shooting, which we know he’s really good at. But we’re starting to see some glimpses of that. I think he’s still ironing out his defensive dominance, which we’ll see late in games. So I think there’s more to see.

“[But], pretty good player, man. Pretty good player.”

Thursday night’s matchup with the Warriors — besides being a litmus test for the Raptors as a whole — also will serve as one personally for Leonard. It will mark the first time this season he has gone up against another truly elite wing player, as he will serve as the primary opposition to Warriors star Kevin Durant. It also will be the first time he has played against Golden State since spraining his ankle in the third quarter of Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference finals.

While executives around the league may think Leonard isn’t quite where he used to be, Durant said he has seen the same version of Leonard he always has as he’s watched the Raptors on television so far this season.

“I think he’s back to where he was the year before last,” Durant said. “He’s creating a lot off the dribble, in the post, catching and shooting. He’s just creating a lot of offense in different places on the floor, and he’s very efficient at it.”

In one of Toronto’s four losses this season, Nov. 16 in Boston, the Raptors tried to put Leonard on Kyrie Irving on the defensive end in the fourth quarter, but they quickly went away from it after Irving successfully got away from Leonard in a couple of pick-and-rolls. Nurse and his staff are still deciphering the right way to combat situations such as those, to best make use of the former Defensive Player of the Year.

“I think there’s some matchups that we’ll try to get him to, and there’s maybe a scheme or two we’ll try to get him to,” Nurse said. “We might put him on bigs, so when we know screen-and-rolls are coming, then he can switch out to the primary ballhandler.

“Those are things we haven’t quite gotten to yet, as far as our defensive packages, but we’re going to try to get him to be the ‘Shut-the-water-off guy.’ Go shut somebody’s water off.”

The way things are going for the Raptors, they have a long time — perhaps all the way until June — to figure out all the ways they can maximize Leonard’s gifts. In the meantime, Toronto already has seen plenty to be excited about.

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