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Muscled-up Kawhi Leonard holds court in Clippers' camp opener

LA Times logo LA Times 9/27/2022 Andrew Greif
Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard, show during media day, fully participated in the first day of training camp, including five-on-five situations. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press) © Provided by LA Times Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard, show during media day, fully participated in the first day of training camp, including five-on-five situations. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

One by one, the Clippers arrived Tuesday morning in an auspicious start to their season.

Norman Powell was first inside the gym on the UNLV campus, the veteran with the stated goals of becoming an All-Star and starting shooting guard soon launching jumpers over coaches’ defense 90 minutes before practice officially began. Through the front door came the young Clippers on the training-camp contracts in their team-issued, Nike-sponsored practice gear. From a side door monitored by a security officer, in walked Kawhi Leonard in his New Balance T-shirt and shorts.

Point guard John Wall laced up his sneakers while chatting with team advisor Jerry West. The guard with whom Wall will compete for the starting job, Reggie Jackson, fist-bumped anyone within reach. Center Ivica Zubac, who turned an ankle playing for Croatia during this month’s EuroBasket tournament, walked in without any apparent pain.

The first day of practice had begun — the first day with an entirely healthy Clippers roster since the spring of 2021.

“It feels good to see everyone healthy,” coach Tyronn Lue said before practice, “and back on the floor.”

The Clippers know they have enough top-end talent to compete for the franchise’s first championship. They believe they possess enough shooting and depth to support such ambition too. What they lack in sheer rim-protecting size, they hope to compensate for with their sheer number of options to plug in at center.

What no one knows is how healthy they will be come the postseason’s start in April, which is why a phalanx of medical staffers followed the Clippers into the gym Tuesday and why the first day felt to the Clippers like a good one after Leonard looked strong during full-contact, five-on-five situations.

“I mean, it’s just good to see him on the court shooting and pretty soon playing basketball games with us,” wing Nicolas Batum said before practice. “To have a guy like that back, one of the best players in the world, one of the best players in the league, it’s gonna be good for us.”

Said Jackson of title expectations: “Part of the excitement, too, is to know that on paper that everybody — a lot of people — probably choosing us, and it looks good on paper.”

The first practice turned theory into reality. In the portion open to reporters before practice, Leonard worked on off-the-dribble shooting. It came one day after Leonard said his plan was to participate in the first practices, with the rest of his involvement throughout the preseason determined by the response of his surgically repaired right knee and the rest of his 31-year-old body. The Clippers will practice three days here before flying to Seattle on Thursday, where they will play two preseason games and hold practices while closing out training camp.

“It's been 14 months of me just trying to better myself and just focus on my overall body,” Leonard said Monday. “I'm excited. I'm tired of going through these rehab workouts and listening to doctors and trainers for the most part. Even though I'm still going to have to moving forward, but it'll be more basketball involved. That will help me.”

Teammates, just like fans on social media, took notice of the muscle Leonard added during his recovery, particularly in his legs.

“His recovery’s going well,” wing Terance Mann said, “and he’s Kawhi, so he’ll be all right.”

Tuesday’s opening of camp didn’t require introductions. Of the 10 Clippers who played at least 1,000 minutes last season, eight are back and that figure doesn’t include familiar faces whose minutes were limited after arriving via trade at midseason, Robert Covington and Powell, nor second-year returners Brandon Boston Jr. and Jason Preston. That combination of continuity and health should make this “different than most training camps,” Lue said, in that practices can advance to scrimmaging earlier than usual.

Those early lineups could reflect some without a traditional center. Moses Brown, a 7-foot-2 center on a training camp contract, will “get an opportunity,” Lue said, but in a season when the Clippers’ rotation is likely to feel a squeeze with more deserving players than available minutes, Mann and Batum said they would play any role asked of them, including center.

“Playing small — I think it’s more important to play small with Kawhi and [Paul George] on the floor," Lue added. "I think having [Zubac] come out early and pop and go back with the second unit so we can help the rebounding, I think it will be better for us because Kawhi and PG are great rebounders.”

Lue has said he wants a focused but loose atmosphere during camp, with players aware of the significant opportunity ahead of them. He had never failed to make the playoffs as a head coach until last season, and though he spent his offseason trying to be more patient, he also has little patience for the kind of wavering focus that could waste valuable practice repetitions and cost the Clippers a chance to reach their championship ambitions.

He had their attention at 10:02 a.m., when a buzzing horn rang throughout the Clippers’ temporary Vegas home and 20 players encircled Lue. The coach looked out and saw a rarity — his team fully healthy.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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