TORONTO — When the Toronto Raptors made a franchise-changing trade this summer time — sending DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a first-round choose to the San Antonio Spurs for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Inexperienced — the rationale may very well be summed up in a single sentence: The potential upside was definitely worth the threat.

Because the Raptors prepared to host the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors on Thursday night time in a nationally televised recreation that many are viewing as a possible NBA Finals preview, it seems to be just like the gamble by Raptors president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri has paid off.

“It is an amazing trade for Toronto, even when [Leonard] leaves,” one league government mentioned. “I simply by no means noticed them going any additional than they’d with DeMar.”

ESPN surveyed a number of NBA executives to gauge their ideas on Leonard via six weeks, and the way he has sorted spending nearly all of final season on the sidelines due to a quad damage. And whereas there was some debate over whether or not he’s all the best way again to what he was earlier than the damage, there was no disputing the truth that Leonard is, at a minimal, again to taking part in like one of many league’s elite gamers as soon as once more.

“He is just about again to his previous self,” Inexperienced mentioned. “Simply physicality-wise of having the ability to maintain back-to-backs is the one factor. … He is contemporary, he is taking part in at a excessive degree, the extent he usually performs at.”

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Then Inexperienced smiled.

“I believe he is doing all proper to this point,” he mentioned with amusing.

Nonetheless, there was no assure that might be the case, which made the transfer a dangerous one for a Toronto crew that was coming off a 59-win season and already had made a training change in hopes of reversing its postseason fortune.

Leonard performed in solely 9 video games final season due to tendinopathy in his left quad and has simply this season remaining on his contract earlier than he can enter free company. There was no telling which model of Leonard would present up north of the border this season — or, as soon as he obtained there, how he would love it.

Conversely, DeRozan, the main scorer in Raptors historical past, was a franchise icon and arguably the best participant in Toronto’s two-plus many years as an NBA metropolis. He was the spine of a crew that has constantly been among the many Japanese Convention’s finest for half a decade.

However to Ujiri, a theoretically wholesome Leonard represented the potential to be higher than every other participant on the Raptors’ roster, together with DeRozan.

To this point, Leonard has been precisely what the Raptors hoped for. His averages — 24.Three factors, eight.6 rebounds, Three.1 assists and 1.eight steals per recreation — are in keeping with his numbers earlier than he obtained harm. Actually, he is really averaging, by a wholesome margin, a profession excessive in rebounds. And that is whereas nonetheless attempting to regulate to taking part in with a brand new crew, and new teammates, for the primary time in his profession.

“I am nonetheless studying my crew,” he mentioned after ending with 17 factors, 10 rebounds, 5 assists and two steals in Toronto’s 122-114 win over Memphis on Tuesday, “and determining I do not actually have to do an excessive amount of with all of this expertise that we now have.”

“It is an amazing trade for Toronto, even when [Leonard] leaves. I simply by no means noticed them going any additional than they’d with DeMar.”

League government on Kawhi Leonard trade

In the meantime, the one space Leonard is at the moment struggling in — he is taking pictures 33 % on Three-pointers — is probably going to enhance to his prior ranges (he is a profession 38 % shooter from Three) because the season progresses. Leonard attributed his decrease proportion to difficult himself to take tougher makes an attempt.

“I am attempting to get higher,” he mentioned. “It is easy to shoot an excellent Three-point proportion. When you catch-and-shoot. I am taking extra photographs off the dribble, extra off the pick-and-roll, in transition. … I am going to preserve taking pictures. That is the way you get higher.”

That is why some executives across the league already see the participant Leonard was earlier than — the one almost universally thought of to be among the many league’s high 5 abilities total, and its finest two-way participant.

“When he really performs, the one participant within the Japanese Convention worthy of debate with him is Giannis [Antetokounmpo],” one government mentioned. “The man fully controls the sport at each ends — scores in any respect three ranges, will get wherever he needs off the dribble, performs to contact, smothers individuals defensively.

“And he is not even taking pictures nicely from the Three-point line but.”

2016-17 2018-19
PPG 25.5 24.four
RPG 5.eight eight.6
APG Three.5 Three.1
FG Pct. 48.5 47.four
Workforce Win Pct. .753 .818

However that preliminary caveat — “when he really performs” — is one thing that cropped up in a couple of conversations about Leonard. Nobody doubts he’s nonetheless an excellent participant. However in asking whether or not he is again to being among the many league’s ultra-elite abilities, individuals level to Toronto’s insistence on holding him out of a minimum of one recreation in back-to-back units to this point this season.

“He performs, like, twice per week,” mentioned one government with amusing. “He ain’t all the best way again.”

Even when setting apart the talk over whether or not Leonard ought to — or wants to — play in each recreation, the overall consensus was that he is nearly, however not fairly, what he was in 2016-17, his final full season.

One government mentioned Leonard is “shut to being again.” One other mentioned he was “90 %” of the participant he was earlier than.

The numbers again that up. In accordance to Second Spectrum knowledge, each Leonard’s factors per direct isolation play and factors per direct drive are down barely from two seasons in the past, prior to his damage. That season, Leonard scored 1.00 level off every direct isolation and 1.09 factors off every direct drive. These numbers are down to zero.88 and 1.01, respectively — every roughly 10 % decrease than they had been in 2016-17.

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One different notable particular person, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse, agrees that Leonard’s recreation nonetheless has room to develop. However whereas some may even see that as a priority, it is precisely the other for Nurse. It is a reminder that, for in addition to Leonard is taking part in now, this is not even the very best model of this season’s Raptors.

“I am form of on either side of the fence right here,” Nurse mentioned. “I am most likely delighted from my preliminary response to once we obtained him that 20 video games, as in, ‘Would we be this far with him?’ So far as going via coaching camp and taking part in as many minutes and video games, so far as how he is taking part in.

“However I believe there’s nonetheless so much to come but. I believe he is nonetheless ironing out his Three-point taking pictures, which we all know he is actually good at. However we’re beginning to see some glimpses of that. I believe he is nonetheless ironing out his defensive dominance, which we’ll see late in video games. So I believe there’s extra to see.

“[But] fairly good participant, man. Fairly good participant.”

Thursday night time’s matchup with the Warriors — apart from being a litmus take a look at for the Raptors as a complete — additionally will function one personally for Leonard. It’ll mark the primary time this season he has gone up in opposition to one other actually elite wing participant, as he’ll function the first opposition to Warriors star Kevin Durant. It additionally would be the first time he has performed in opposition to Golden State since spraining his ankle within the third quarter of Sport 1 of the 2017 Western Convention finals.

Whereas executives across the league might imagine Leonard is not fairly the place he used to be, Durant mentioned he has seen the identical model of Leonard he at all times has as he has watched the Raptors on tv to this point this season.

“I believe he is again to the place he was the yr earlier than final,” Durant mentioned. “He is creating so much off the dribble, within the publish, catching and taking pictures. He is simply creating lots of offense in other places on the ground and he is very environment friendly at it.”

In certainly one of Toronto’s 4 losses this season, Nov. 16 in Boston, the Raptors tried to put Leonard on Kyrie Irving on the defensive finish within the fourth quarter, however they shortly went away from it after Irving efficiently obtained away from Leonard in a few pick-and-rolls. Nurse and his employees are nonetheless deciphering the precise means to fight conditions comparable to these, to finest make use of the previous Defensive Participant of the Yr.

“I believe there’s some matchups that we’ll attempt to get him to, and there is possibly a scheme or two we’ll attempt to get him to,” Nurse mentioned. “We would put him on bigs, so once we know screen-and-rolls are coming, then he can change out to the first ballhandler.

“These are issues we have not fairly gotten to but, so far as our defensive packages, however we’re going to attempt to get him to be the ‘Shut-the-water-off man.’ Go shut any person’s water off.”

The best way issues are going for the Raptors, they’ve a very long time — maybe all the best way until June — to work out all of the methods they will maximize Leonard’s presents. Within the meantime, Toronto already has seen loads to be enthusiastic about.

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