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Swanson: Clippers’ ‘Fun Guy’ Kawhi Leonard excited to play ball

LA Daily News 9/27/2022 Mirjam Swanson, Los Angeles Daily News
The Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard speaks to reporters during the team’s preseason media day on Monday at the Honey Training Center in Playa Vista. Leonard missed the entire 2021-22 season recovering from ACL surgery, but he sounds ready to go as the team begins training camp. © Leonard Ortiz/Los Angeles Daily News/TNS The Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard speaks to reporters during the team’s preseason media day on Monday at the Honey Training Center in Playa Vista. Leonard missed the entire 2021-22 season recovering from ACL surgery, but he sounds ready to go as the team begins training camp.

LOS ANGELES — What’s better than a baby’s laugh?

Nothing in the whole wide world, unless you’re a Clippers fan.

In that case: Kawhi laughing > some silly baby.

And the NBA’s Fun Guy™ poked his head up Monday at the Clippers’ annual preseason media day.

What that means: If the Clippers’ season goes as they hope it will, we have incontrovertible evidence that Leonard’s amusement is equally as reliable a harbinger as that six-more-weeks-of-winter groundhog.

Let the record show, the last time Leonard LOL’d when he met the press on media day, it was during his introduction as a member of the Toronto Raptors in 2018.

Two hundred and sixty-two days later, the Raptors were hoisting the Larry OB trophy – Leonard’s nickname for the NBA’s biggest prize, hardware named for former commissioner Larry O’Brien.

On the media day that preceded that franchise’s first championship, a reporter asked Leonard what he wanted people to know about him: “I’m a fun guy,” said Kawhi – speaking precise Kawhi, to-the-point and unironically ironic.

“Obviously, I love the game of basketball,” Leonard continued, before demurring, saying he wasn’t prepared to give a whole spiel on himself without specific questions to prompt him. Besides, he added, cracking himself up with the distinct, delightful chortle that had meme makers across the internet swooning: “I don’t even know where you’re sitting at.”

On Monday at the Clippers’ practice facility, Leonard sat by himself on stage after bounding onto it in one giant step, not bothering with the small stairway on the opposite side.

He’d replaced his Clippers’ jersey – in which he’d posed beside Paul George, both of them mean-mugging for photographs but smiling between seemingly each camera click – with his New Balance-branded attire.

And in his first comments to reporters since his last comments to reporters at media day last season, the man sure seemed happy.

Likened previously to the Terminator, both because he is a proven basketball killer and because he seems usually to operate like a machine, on Monday, Leonard kept talking about how excited he was. Excited about the Clippers’ roster. Excited about the prospect of getting back out onto the court – starting Tuesday, on the first day of training camp in Las Vegas.

And, yes, he laughed.

He’d just said, heck yeah, if the Clippers had gotten within a series of the Larry OB last season, he would have cut short the laborious rehab from a torn right anterior cruciate ligament, laced up his sneakers and let it rip: “If they would have made it to the Finals last year, you would have seen me playing.”

Then came a healthy chuckle, because it’s a moot point now, one of life’s “coulda, woulda, shoulda”s as he put it.

But now, Leonard could (should?) compete for what would be his third NBA title with his third team.

And it’s not only Leonard’s laugh that portends the possibility.

Newish Clipper guard Norman Powell played with him on that championship team in Toronto, where the Raptors also had strength in numbers and Leonard was coming back after having lost most of the previous season in San Antonio to a nagging quadriceps injury.

“It’s kind of similar, Kawhi coming back off an injury and missing basketball and then starting off with a fresh training camp,” Powell recalled. “There’s a lot to look forward to.”

George has his own experience with a major injury, having missed the majority of the 2014-15 season recovering from a broken leg. He remembers the mental hurdles involved in his return, trying not to even think about the prospect of being injured again.

“But I think honestly, it’ll be like a kid in a candy store,” George said. “Just enjoying that feel of running and the atmosphere and doing what he loves to do.”

And George believes the Clippers’ depth will aid in Leonard’s re-acclimation: “Hopefully with our roster, we put enough around him that he doesn’t have to go for 40 the first night,” said George, who was hampered by injuries last season too, playing just 31 games for a team that finished 42-40 and would have made the playoffs if it hadn’t dropped both play-in tournament games.

Coach Tyronn Lue will make clear to this year’s team, whatever success comes the Clippers’ way won’t be “happen because Kawhi is coming back healthy or PG is coming back. We still have to put the work in.” But there won’t be any Larry OB talk if Leonard isn’t playing ball as last we saw him … when the time comes.

Before he was injured during the Clippers’ first foray to the Western Conference finals in 2021, Leonard was scoring an average of 30.4 points on 57.3% shooting. He was also averaging 7.7 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 2.1 steals through Game 4 of their second-round series against the then-top-seeded Utah Jazz.

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He’d had five games that postseason with at least 25 points on 65% or better shooting – something only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1980) and Shaquille O’Neal (1998) had done in more games in one postseason.

And there was that career playoff-high-tying 45-point first-round masterpiece on 18-of-25 shooting in Dallas that forced a Game 7 in L.A.

The Clippers don’t expect that guy on Day 1, but who they’re getting is a healthy star who was busy while he was away, gaining a foothold in the music world and bulking up so much that Clipper fans have adopted a new favorite pun to describe Leonard’s legs (courtesy of Twitter user @sambivalent01): “Ka-thigh.”

They’re getting a guy who’s ready to have some fun.

“I missed the whole year last year,” Leonard said. “It’s been 14 months of me just trying to better myself and just focus on my overall body. … I’m tired of going through these rehab workouts and listening to doctors and trainers. Even though I’m still going to have to moving forward, but it’ll be more basketball involved.

“I’m excited.”

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