Kawhi “Enormous Paws” Leonard hasn’t exactly kept his stalwart reputation intact in the eyes of many. At the end of the 2017-18 Orange Roundball League season, Leonard never returned to the floor for the San Antonio Spurs. Instead, he continued to rehabilitate a right quadriceps injury even after the Spurs’ medical staff had cleared him to play.
FYI: I’ve coined Kawhi with the Enormous Paws nickname simply because he has mammoth hands. And I mention his mitts time and time again in every piece that I’ve written where his name appears. Okay. Thank you. I just needed to clear the air.
Although the Spurs’ staff had done so, Kawhi’s personal team of experts had not cleared him to return to the hardwood. In fact, he was in New York with his team rehabbing from the injury rather than being around his San Antonio teammates. Not a big surprise considering that the Spurs’ staff had given him the green light, but Mr. Leonard’s associates had not. Add it all up, and a rift had now formed between Leonard and the Spurs.
Upsetting the apple cart even further, Kawhi had made a decision to miss the entirety of the 2018 NBA playoffs. At this point, ridding themselves of Leonard at season’s end via a trade became San Antonio’s mission.
They succeeded, sending the two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year to the Toronto Raptors in exchange for All-Star swingman, DeMar DeRozan. This came as a shock to many, including myself. With his sights set on joining LeBron “King” James and the Los Angeles Lakers, Leonard was now headed north of the border. Meanwhile, the deal left Mr. DeRozan scratching his head in frustration. DeMar assumed he’d be a Raptor lifer, and the bond between him and Toronto point guard Kyle Lowry seemed unbreakable.
Well, it was broken. And strangely enough, Raptors’ team president Masai Ujiri made the deal happen while he was in Kenya. The Nigerian executive, former player and scout was handling business with Giants of Africa — Ujiri’s nonprofit organization. The NBA’s 2013 Executive of the Year uses his platform to make basketball his way of enriching and educating the lives of youth in Africa. There’s nothing wrong with using the orange as a fabulous teaching tool.
Nonetheless, snapping the extraordinary relationship between DeMar and Kyle was harsh. But professional hoops is a business, and Mr. Ujiri is a businessman. At the end of the day, you must move on and make the very best of your new opportunity. I have no doubt that DeRozan will be able to achieve greatness in San Antonio. After all, DeRozan’s game will be honed by Spurs’ lead assistant coach, Becky Hammon. For that reason, you’re extremely lucky Mr. DeRozan.
What about Kawhi? Can he be counted on in Toronto to raise his play to what it once was? Can he help the Raptors become a true Eastern Conference contender? In my opinion, the answers to the latter two questions are yes. Leonard plays defense with perhaps the most passion and energy of anyone in the league. His career offensive numbers are no slouch either. Dude can flat score the rock. The 27-year-old small forward, standing 6-foot-7 and ringing the bell at 230 pounds, has career averages of 16.2 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 2.3 assists per game.
Now, what does Ujiri have to say about Leonard’s persona and his game? Kawhi has not yet addressed the media in Toronto, but Masai states that his superstar is happy and healthy.
“He is determined and seems in the right frame of mind,” Ujiri said. “You will be hearing from him shortly. I think there is a fire inside of him, and we are all excited about that.”
When Ujiri was asked about Leonard’s commitment to the Raptors, he stated, “Basketball person. Just loves the game. Wants to play the game and very competitive. You can tell he is a very competitive kid. It’s about basketball. Once you just start to talk about basketball his eyes change.”
And as far as special treatment for his new star is concerned, Ujiri vanquished that question quickly.
“There is nothing we are going to do different. We are going to be ourselves. I think the situation with him in San Antonio, which I don’t want to talk about because I don’t know much about it, but he’s a quiet kid,” Ujiri said. “That’s his nature. We can’t all be the same kind of people. But he is as engaging as he would want to be, and he’s very interesting. There is no maintenance with him. There are no tons of people around him. His [focus] is on basketball, which is what you want. He is a basketball junkie.”
After the trade that rendered unexpected landing spots, look for new Raptor (Leonard) and new Spur (DeRozan) to help guide their mates to new heights during the 2018-19 NBA season.