Before he called a single play for Kawhi Leonard, before he ever coached or cajoled him or conversed with him, Nick Nurse had the same impression as anyone else of his new star player: Quiet. Reticent. Impenetrable.
That's the player the world saw and (rarely) heard all those years in San Antonio. That's the guy Nurse braced himself for last summer, after the Toronto Raptors acquired Leonard in a stunning blockbuster trade. So Nurse, the Raptors' newly installed rookie head coach, approached their first meeting with a dual strategy.
"Plan A was to have a conversation with him," Nurse recalled on a recent April afternoon. "And Plan B was, if there was no conversation, I was just going to tell him my life story, basically."
Nurse—a native of tiny Carroll, Iowa, whose coaching odyssey had taken him from Des Moines to South Dakota, to Belgium and various dots across the United Kingdom, to Oklahoma and Texas—had retold his story often while pursuing the Raptors' job. It was easy conversation filler.
"I'll just keep talking," Nurse told himself at the time.
But then something unexpected happened. Leonard talked. Engaged. Probed. Asked questions.
"He was smart, he was nice, he was respectful," Nurse recalled. "It was easy."
Easy. The word comes up repeatedly around this team when Leonard is the subject. Easy to coach, easy to play with, easy to befriend. And yes, easy to converse with—his comically reserved persona notwithstanding.
"He's easy guy," said teammate Serge Ibaka, who has become close to Leonard. "I like easy people."
Easy to win with, too, as the Raptors have happily learned over the past seven months, through a 58-win regular season and two rounds of the playoffs, including an incredibly taut semifinal series against the Philadelphia 76ers, now tied at 3-3. Game 7 is Sunday.
Leonard has been an absolute wrecking ball, destroying opponents with a deft blend of power and finesse, inspiring comparisons to Kobe Bryant (by Philadelphia coach Brett Brown) and Michael Jordan (by former player Kendrick Perkins).
A 37-point, 15-of-22 shooting clinic against Orlando in the first round. A 45-point, 11-rebound demolition of the Sixers in Game 1 of the semifinals. A 39-point, 14-rebound, five-assist masterpiece in Game 4. He's torched Ben Simmons and outshone Jimmy Butler and Joel Embiid.
Toronto is five victories from the first Finals appearance in franchise history. A championship feels plausible. And Leonard is by far the biggest reason. He is the heart of the Raptors offense and the backbone of the defense, attacking each possession with the steadiness and predictability of a metronome.
"He play at his own pace," Ibaka said. "His pace is not too fast, not too slow, in between. ... He's a superstar. And playing with a guy like him, it just makes it different. It makes it so easy in a game."
None of which should be surprising, given Leonard's credentials as a three-time All-Star and former Finals MVP.
And yet it all still feels like a joyful revelation of sorts.
Because of what came before. Because of how he got here. Because of the glaring risks that came with acquiring the fabulously talented 27-year-old from the Spurs in July.
Leonard missed 73 games last season—the result of a quadriceps injury and a testy standoff with Spurs officials over the handling of that injury. The conflict bred distrust and eventually a trade demand. Leonard, a Southern California native, hoped to land in Los Angeles. And with one season left on his contract, he had the leverage to scare off other suitors.
But Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri saw a rare opportunity to obtain a top-five player and went all in, shipping All-Star DeMar DeRozan, center Jakob Poeltl and a 2019 first-round draft pick to the Spurs for Leonard and Danny Green.
Two nagging questions loomed: Was Kawhi still Kawhi? And could the Raptors convince him to stay? That first question has been answered, emphatically. The answer to the second remains a mystery and likely will until July 1, when Leonard becomes a free agent.
Los Angeles still beckons in the form of the hyperaggressive Clippers, whose infatuation with Leonard is an open secret. The Lakers and James could come calling, too. No one pretends to know Leonard's intentions or what impact this postseason run will have on his decision.
Even Ibaka, perhaps Leonard's closest friend on the team, couldn't get a straight answer when he asked Leonard about free agency on his cooking show. ("We'll see after the season is up. I don't know," Leonard said.)
The past is irrelevant, the future hazy, but in this moment, all parties seem certain of this much: The marriage of Leonard and the Raptors, however long it lasts, has been seamless, brilliant—and worth the risk.
"I've always been a guy that played the game to win," Leonard said. "That's what I want to do every year. That's what I put my pride in."
Toronto, a solid-but-softish playoff team in recent years, feels legit at last. The Raptors provided Leonard a fresh start, a supportive environment, a plan to protect his body and the freedom to expand his game. And he in turn has given the franchise credibility—the sheen of a contender.
"He would never say this," said Steve Fisher, Leonard's coach at San Diego State, "but there's some satisfaction that after ... almost a lost season, that he's back in very, very, very rarefied air."
The second time Nurse sat down with Leonard, he came armed with questions instead of a personal biography. He again erred in his assumptions—and was again happy to be wrong.
The Raptors and Leonard had meshed quickly, easily, winning their first six games of the season and then running another six-game streak after a single loss in Milwaukee. Somewhere along the way, Nurse sought out Leonard to check in with him, to gauge his comfort level and his individual goals.
The mistake? Believing Leonard had individual goals.
"I kind of listed a few things that I thought he would care about personally," Nurse said. "Most of those, he discarded."
Nurse demurred on the specifics, but it's not hard to surmise what kind of personal goals an NBA coach might associate with an NBA superstar: His offensive role. Shots. Stats. Postseason honors. An MVP trophy.
Whatever was on that list, Leonard smacked it away as swiftly and forcefully as he swats away shots with those baseball-mitt hands of his.
"He said: 'I love to play. I want to be healthy, so I can play this game for a long time. And I want to win. That's all I really care about,'" Nurse recalled. "I found that to be pretty interesting, that he discarded all of the other kind of personal objectives and personal goals that I had kind of laid out."
Nurse, 51, chuckled sheepishly on that last part. He's been around the game long enough to know what drives elite players—and that every star is built a little differently. In Leonard's case, maybe a lot differently.
In a league often dominated by divas and drama fiends, Leonard presents as the ultimate low-maintenance superstar—no demands, no blowups, no hectoring of teammates, no controversial proclamations (or, really, any proclamations). He dominates the game without domineering his team.
"He's very emotionless, right?" Nurse said. "So there's no ups and downs, really. There's no crying, and there's no screaming at each other. There's just a guy that is trying very hard to do his job, that's a job that he really loves."
It takes time for Leonard to open up, but the Raptors have learned at least a little about what moves him: family (including a newborn son), music, food and basketball. He was both of fan and friend to Nipsey Hussle, the L.A. rapper who was gunned down in March.
Whatever drove the rift between Leonard and the Spurs, it's clearly more exception than rule.
"He's a really fuckin' good teammate, man," said Kyle Lowry, the longtime hub of the Raptors' lineup. "He's a really good teammate."
It's mostly the little things—the way Leonard carries himself, the details he points out during a timeout, his direct manner, his seriousness about the game. But it's also in subtle gestures—like inviting a teammate to share a practice court with him during a morning shootaround, even though Leonard prefers to shoot by himself (and as the franchise star, gets the privilege of his own basket).
He's not overly demonstrative or loud, but he leads all the same.
"He got a lot of fight in him," Lowry said. "He's not as quiet as people think he is."
Indeed, these days Leonard is positively outspoken, at least by his standards—another sign of his steady evolution. As an unheralded rookie in 2011, Leonard fell in line behind Spurs legends Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. Even as he emerged as the MVP of the 2014 Finals, Leonard preferred to blend in.
With a change of scenery has come a shift in assertiveness.
"He's being more of a leader," says Green, who has played with Leonard since his Spurs debut. "I would say in the other organization, we had older guys. He didn't have to lead as much. It was more by example. But here, more vocal."
The same is true of Leonard's game. It's largely the same as it was in San Antonio—just bolder. He attempted a career-high 18.8 field goals per game in the regular season, a mark that ranked just 11th in the NBA, while still maintaining his efficiency. He's taken advantage of more isolation opportunities afforded by Nurse's offense and used them to great effect, averaging a career-best 26.6 points in the regular season.
"I'm impressed with sometimes how easy he can make getting 33 points look," Nurse said. "Stress-free 30 is a hell of a talent."
Leonard worked regularly this season with assistant coach Phil Handy, focusing on footwork, ball-handling and shooting off-the-dribble three-pointers, all in an effort to expand his game and take advantage of the greater latitude provided by Nurse.
"We have a lot of freedom here to be able to do things you want to do on the floor," Leonard said. "The biggest thing that I feel like I experienced this year is just learning about my game a little bit more with the more freedom that they have."
So yes, after all the weirdness and tension of last season, after all the games missed and concerns for his health, Kawhi is indeed still Kawhi. Maybe better.
While everyone was fretting and speculating last summer—about Leonard's health, his game, his mood, his mental makeup, his culpability in the Spurs rift, his willingness to play in Toronto, his winter-coat supply—Leonard was quietly, methodically reconstructing his game.
The days began as early as 6:30 a.m. at the Jeff Jacobs JAM Center, the practice court at San Diego State, where Leonard still trains every offseason. Fisher, the former Aztecs head coach, recalls the routine vividly.
"He'd come in, and he would do some dribbling and ball-handling," Fisher said. "But then he would start with form shooting, right under the basket, gradually work out. Then he would work on back-to-the-basket moves, precise, exactly what he wanted to do, with the up-and-under, with the turnaround. He developed a low-post game that he knew he could put to use. And then he would do the things that he does—off-the-dribble pull-up, coming off of a downscreen, a curl, a catch-and-shoot, drive. All the things that he would need to work on."
What Fisher sees now, in these playoffs, is a fully actualized Leonard—as good or better than the player who made a run at NBA MVP two years ago. That was precisely the goal when Leonard returned to campus last summer to work with Randy Shelton, his personal trainer and San Diego State's strength and conditioning coach.
"His mindset was not just to get back to the level of play of where he was but to exceed it," Shelton said. "I told everyone, 'Kawhi is going to be a better basketball player once he gets back on the court.'"
And now? Now Leonard is drawing nightly comparisons to NBA legends and terrorizing one of the most star-studded lineups in these playoffs. He's averaging an astounding 33.7 points, 10.2 rebounds and 4.2 assists against the Sixers while making nearly 57 percent of his shots (36.1 percent from three).
All of it has left Leonard dueling with Kevin Durant for the fictional role of "best player in the world," as deemed by NBA pundits (a discussion that necessarily leaves out, for now, the playoff-absent LeBron James).
The Raptors did their part by working with Leonard to develop the so-called "load management" program—which called for him to sit out designated games throughout the season to protect his body in this first season back from injury. He missed 22 games in all.
"It's not about me feeling tired or not playing this next game because I'm tired," Leonard said. "It's to get me to my full potential, 100 percent healthy. That's everybody's goal. That's good. That's what you want from a team. You want them to care about you, your body, and want you to be healthy."
The plan—described as a collaboration between Leonard and Alex McKechnie, the Raptors' highly regarded director of sports science—drew criticism in some quarters. It's rare for a team to willingly shut down its franchise star for a quarter of the season. But the results are unassailable. Leonard has never looked better.
The payoff is evident nightly now, in these playoffs. It could pay further dividends down the road. As a rival team executive said last winter, while explaining why he thought Leonard would ultimately stay in Toronto, "McKechnie is going to make Kawhi feel better than he's ever felt."
For his part, Leonard will confirm this much in his uniquely understated way: He feels good, great even. "MVP level?" he's asked. He won't go there yet. There's another summer of training ahead, this time with his body at full strength. But right now, there are games to play, opponents to wreck, a championship to chase.
"I'm just trying to win," Leonard said. "That's going to be the cure for everything. I don't care if you win MVP. I want to win a championship. That's my focus every year."
The speculation about his game, his future, the ramifications for this Raptors team and the rest of the NBA won't stop anytime soon, but he has no time or use for the drama. Kawhi Leonard is easy people, after all.
Howard Beck, a senior writer for Bleacher Report, has been covering the NBA full time since 1997, including seven years on the Laker beat for the Los Angeles Daily News and nine years as a staff writer for the New York Times. His coverage was honored by APSE in 2016 and 2017.
Beck also hosts the Full 48 podcast, available on iTunes.
Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.
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