Kawhi Leonard has a reputation for being silent, taciturn and has, of course, more recently developed a reputation for being a franchise wrecker. When the Raptors acquired Leonard from the San Antonio Spurs there was little question he represented an on-court upgrade over DeMar DeRozan, who was sent the other way. Much of the discontent surrounding the trade stemmed from potential off-court issues: Who would fill the void of leadership left by DeRozan? Would Leonard, already rumoured to be focused on joining the Los Angeles Lakers when his current contract expires, put forth a full effort for his new team? Would Leonard be responsive to rookie head coach Nick Nurse? Would he be as reclusive and distant from the Raptors management and coaching staff as he was with the Spurs organization by the end of his time in San Antonio?
Fortunately, per Dave Feschuk of the Toronto Star, Nurse and the Raptors appear to have gotten off on the right foot in communicating with Leonard. And Leonard, for his part, seems committed to be being as good as he can be in his upcoming year with the Raptors.
Nurse went into his first meeting with the newly acquired star with many of the same trepidations as many Raptors fans:
“I’d never talked to him before. I don’t think I’m alone in that. So you get a perception of him,” Nurse said. “I’ll be honest with you. I kind of went in there thinking, ‘What if he doesn’t say anything? What am I going to do?’ ”
It was a pleasant surprise then when Leonard proved very engaged over the course of the pair’s 45 minute conversation.
“I sat down and said, ‘Do you have any questions?’ And he started firing them,” Nurse said. “And it just led us to a really easygoing (conversation). Not what I was expecting. Very smart. Very intelligent. Very engaging. Really enjoyed it … (Management) had to drag us out of there in the end because they had to go do something else. But it was great.”
The pair reportedly had a lengthy discussion on what Leonard’s role would be within the Raptors’ offence, one which highlighted how versatile a Raptors’ offence with a fully healthy Leonard at the tip of the spear could be.
“We could have gone forever. (Raptors management) kept knocking on the door and I was like, ‘A couple more minutes.’ Because we were really into it,” Nurse said. “It was fun to listen to his take. He asked me, ‘How are you going to use me? Where are you going to get me the ball? What do you see?’ And I told him, ‘Listen. To me, you can do pretty much everything. You can post. You can drive. You can handle it up the floor. You can play screen and roll. You can come off pindowns.’ I said, ‘Did I miss anything?’ He’s like, ‘No, that’s about it.’ I said, ‘You’ll probably be doing all that stuff.’ ”
Leonard brings some of the same strengths as DeRozan. With his high level ability to work in the screen and roll and post, the Raptors can continue to run the same style of offence that they ran for many years. Leonard can work on-ball in DeRozan’s former role with a bevy of shooters and cutters around him. However, as Leonard is a more adept off-ball player, with the ability to catch-and-shoot off of pindowns, the Raptors also have the ability to more easily switch to a free-flowing offence akin to what their bench ran last year. With the addition of an all-time perimeter defender in Leonard, and another high level perimeter defender in Danny Green, the Raptors also figure to play in transition much more often.
“We’re really going to make it a focus of trying to create more turnovers,” Nurse said.
The conversation between Nurse and Leonard highlights how good this Raptors team could be if everything goes well. Team success might be just as important as open communication between Raptors management and Leonard if the Raptors are going to have a chance at retaining the enigmatic star beyond this year.
“I’ve got to get them to play the best they can come April, May and June,” Nurse said. “We need to play in June. Let’s play in June. Maybe we can make up some T-shirts.”
Yeah, just start the season already, dammit.