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Kawhi Leonard, Doc Rivers, Clippers players react to Kawhi’s season debut vs. Nuggets

Kawhi Leonard, Clippers

LOS ANGELES – Kawhi Leonard made his LA Clippers preseason debut on Thursday night against the Denver Nuggets in a 111-91 loss at Staples Center. The two-time Finals MVP finished with seven points, six assists, one steal, and one rebound in 11 impressive first half minutes.

“I thought he was absolutely wonderful,” said head coach Doc Rivers despite the loss. “He did a lot of good stuff, passing and moving the ball, he shot the ball better than I thought he would. He was in and out, but overall, I liked how he played.”

Tonight marked Leonard’s first action since June 13, 2019, the night of Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals. Leonard finished that night with his second NBA Championship trophy as well as his second NBA Finals MVP trophy in six years.

Leonard had only participated in non-contact portions of practice and training camp until midway through the team’s Hawaii trip, when he began to participate in some live drills. By October 5th, following a rough loss to the Houston Rockets, Leonard was taking full contact, and kept doing so until he felt good enough to play Thursday night.

Before you could turn on the TV for tipoff and notice that Leonard was even on the floor Thursday night, he’d already made his presence felt. He tallied an assist to JaMychal Green on corner three-pointer 16 seconds into the contest, following it up with a baseline jumper, a steal, and a transition three-pointer in the next minute.

“I felt good,” said Leonard. “We prepared for this moment. It felt great to be out there getting a rhythm. The things I learned at practice, a little carry over today. It was great to be out there.”

Kawhi Leonard, Mason Plumlee, Clippers, Nuggets

Harry How/Getty Images

Of course, a debut after four months of not playing basketball didn’t come without its rust and issues on the court.

“I didn’t play no contact type of basketball at all,” admitted Leonard. “Normally, I don’t do that and was not able to work out like I wanted to this summer. But there’s always rust if you’re not playing. It’s a long season. That’s what the preseason is for and the practices and the regular season.

“We got some things work on. We’re not all the way into personnel and basically who we’re guarding. We’re going out there with a scheme and working on a few things, either pushing the guy or keeping him on the sideline or making sure he doesn’t go middle. So I can’t give a rating on what we did tonight, as long as guys are playing hard and getting back on defense.”

From an individual standpoint, Leonard looked like he hadn’t missed a beat as he prepares for the 2019-20 NBA season. His seven points came on an efficient 3-of-6 shooting and his six assists marked a team high in that category despite only playing 11 minutes. He was responsible for 20 of the Clippers’ first 33 points before checking out for good with 9:53 left in the second quarter.

Leonard says he didn’t come out looking to facilitate and get his teammates involved. Instead, he used all the attention he drew within the flow of the offense to find guys open in the lane, in the corner, or rolling off pick-and-rolls.

“It just happened naturally,” added Leonard. “For the most part, I caught a lot of attention. So I passed to the open man. They were knocking down shots tonight, early.”

Throughout practices and scrimmages, Leonard has also been a surprisingly vocal leader for the Clippers, something head coach Doc Rivers admitted he didn’t know he was.

“He’s more verbal than you would ever know,” said Rivers. “He’s more demanding in a very positive way. In a very good way. Like, very similar to what Pat does, you gotta do it right and I love that for our team. We knew he was serious and a hell of a defender, he’s already proven those things.”

Kawhi is still feeling out his game, his new teammates, his coaches, and his new (yet old) home, but already becoming a vocal leader for this team bodes well for what will certainly be a grind this season.

Kawhi Leonard, Ivica Zubac, Clippers

Richard Mackson, USA TODAY Sports

“Just wanting to win and giving the knowledge that I have obviously,” Leonard responded on why he’s been so vocal. “I’m still learning myself so it’s hard for me to tell guys to be in these certain spots and do this. But the basketball things that I have pretty much learned in my career is what I try to give the insight on as far as the details of the game. I just try to wiggle myself in those areas and try to give them that knowledge so they know that I’m present. But it takes me to be a player and be active.

“I’m not a coach so it’s hard for me to just talk on the sideline unless I’m active or into the contact. That’s when guys really know that I’m here and that I’m playing.”

Leonard’s Clippers teammates said his impact was immediately felt on the floor.

“It’s different, he’s a big offensive threat,” said Ivica Zubac on playing with Leonard with the first time. “The defense is so focused on him that it just makes the job easier for everyone else. When you set a hard screen and roll, that opens up a lot of opportunities and that’s all I gotta do. when PG gets back it’s going to be even better. Two guys who the defense is going to be all over them. we just got to do our roles and we’ll be good.”

Landry Shamet was also impressed by the presence Leonard brought to the team, something the team clearly missed in Honolulu last week.

“He looked like the player he is. The best player in the world. You know he has a presence about him when he’s out there on the floor. It feels a little different, how he carries himself, how he plays, his communication.

“It’s Kawhi Leonard. Pat has a presence, so him not being on the floor tonight, you felt that. Kawhi being on the floor, you felt that as well. I mean there’s a lot of guys’ with presence. Lou has it, but Kawhi being Kawhi, we all know. There’s no need to explain what that means, having him on the floor. So it was good to see him out there and get to play with him a little bit.”

Following his debut, albeit it being the preseason, Leonard said he feels the excitement every time he steps on the court for the Clippers, and that’s something that won’t go away anytime soon.

“I’m pretty much locked in at that point,” Leonard said about the excitement of his name being called in the starting lineup. “I’m getting my mind ready and prepared for the game. So I’m just going through the huddle and giving high fives and being prepared for the game.

“I feel emotions either getting ready for the game or when I did sign here, thinking about what can happen or what’s going to happen and being able to play Staples Center 45 minutes away from my home where I grew up. It’s exciting. Once I step on the floor, it’s lock-in time.”

The Clippers play Melbourne United back at Staples Center on Sunday afternoon, a game in which Kawhi Leonard is unlikely to play in as he works his way back into game-shape. LA will travel to Vancouver, Canada to take on the Dallas Mavericks in a game Rivers says Leonard will ‘probably’ play in.