Toronto Raptors star Kawhi Leonard responded Sunday to recent criticism by San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich about his leadership, saying the comments were “funny to me” and insisting that he is a leader.
“I heard about it. It’s just funny to me because, you know, I don’t know if he’s talking about last year or not, but I guess when you stop playing they forget how you lead,” Leonard told reporters in Toronto. “Other than that, it doesn’t matter. I’m here with the Raptors. My focus is on the season and not what’s going on the other side.”
Before Saturday’s game at the Milwaukee Bucks, Popovich was asked about the importance of point guard Patty Mills‘ leadership in the wake of Manu Ginobili’s retirement and Leonard’s trade to Toronto, and he provided a blunt assessment of Leonard.
“Kawhi was a great player, but he wasn’t a leader or anything,” Popovich told reporters of the 2014 NBA Finals MVP and two-time Defensive Player of the Year. “Manu and Patty were the leaders. Kawhi’s talent will always be missed, but that leadership wasn’t his deal at that time. That may come as he progresses, but Manu and Patty filled that role last year, and LaMarcus [Aldridge] came a long way in that regard also.”
Leonard said Sunday that he is a leader but he shows it in different ways.
“I lead by example coming into practice every day. Just going hard and coming into these games mentally focused,” he said. “You can’t see things once you’re playing on the floor. Guys ask me questions about their matchup or if I see something on the floor, I’m telling guys, ‘Go here, go there,’ just motivating people, do you know what I mean?
“I’m just trying to lift people’s spirits up, that’s about it. Don’t try to get anybody too down, just lift them up.”
Sent to Toronto this past offseason along with Danny Green in exchange for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a protected 2019 first-round pick, Leonard played in only nine games last season for the Spurs as he dealt with a right quadriceps injury.
Popovich defended Leonard over the summer against any insinuation that he was not a good teammate.
“That is all ridiculous,” Popovich said at the time. “Kawhi was a great teammate the whole way through. He did his work, and he was no problem for anybody. Talking heads out there have to have a story. If I was a talking head — maybe I am — I would have stories, too. All the stories that denigrated him in that regard, that was unfortunate and inaccurate.”
Leonard is expected to return to San Antonio on Jan. 3, when the Raptors face the Spurs at the AT&T Center.
Information from ESPN’s Michael C. Wright was used in this report.