Welcome to the season of Kawhi. Kawhi Leonard looks like an apex predator, because he is one. His shoulders are almost comically broad, in both the amusing and comic-book sense; he has a low centre of gravity and that seven-foot-three wingspan, with arms that stretch to the swooping death of those giant, quick, enveloping hands. Later, you see the quick feet, the skill and the blank-faced hunger. Predator, all the way.
“You don’t see many Mack trucks that move like Ferraris,” says Toronto Raptors teammate Danny Green, before a season-opening 116-104 win over the post-LeBron James Cleveland Cavaliers. “Kawhi’s just so naturally gifted with what he’s given to make life harder for you, with his length, his arms, his hands. He takes up so much space and can recover so fast with that length, he makes you uncomfortable dribbling the ball.
“It’s hard to do it at both ends of the floor. Obviously he’s great at both ends of the floor, but it’s hard to be as passionate at that end as he was when he started because he takes such a heavy load at the offensive end of the floor.
“But he still does it.”
But even apex predators can look rusty, if they’re out of practice, and ecosystems can take time to adjust. In Leonard’s first NBA game since January, you could see signs of disuse: easy shots that dove or clanged. There were moments of hesitation, and he stuck to screens on defence, sometimes.
The Toronto crowd roared when he was introduced last in the starting lineup — he wants to be great, historically great, so of course he was introduced after Kyle Lowry — and cheered again the first few times he touched the ball. So he wasn’t a killer to start, but you could see the glint of knives. When Leonard finds a rhythm he has shots and spots that are automatic. His first step rips through space. He can do things nobody else can do. That’s the point.
“Kawhi, he created a lot of opportunities for himself, but again, looks — I don’t know, I think there are some of those nights when a lot of those are going to go in,” said head coach Nick Nurse. “I thought they roughed him up pretty good, and he only shot six free throws. You see the ability is there for him to get shots, and some nights those are going to be some big numbers.”
But he wasn’t at home yet, and it was mostly a jumbled weird game, and Toronto still had 60 at halftime and never sweated in a win over what is probably a bad team. Leonard and Lowry played mostly separate games: on his own, Lowry delivered a deadly efficient I Am Also An All-Star performance. They’ll learn to mesh, you’d think. You could see connections at times — smoother passing, open shots, Leonard able to create, or Lowry, or even Pascal Siakam, given some space. There is lots here, and lots to improve on.
“I felt good,” said Leonard. “I’m happy we came out and got a win, and I came out of the game healthy, so it’s a win-win for me.
“It’s still early. It’s only the first game. We had a lot of mistakes on the defensive end that we can correct. Our offence was also stagnant sometimes tonight. But our skill level and focus and us playing very hard tonight got us the win.”
You can see how good he can be, and how good they can be, and it will happen in tandem when it happens. Kawhi Leonard looked out of sorts and finished with 24 and 13 rebounds. As Raptors wing C.J. Miles said, “I think people kind of forgot how good he is. Ain’t nobody really watching San Antonio’s games. No offence.”
Unless something goes wrong, Leonard will play the best basketball in a Raptors uniform that anyone ever has. Before Kawhi did it in 2016, the last non-centre to win defensive player of the year and score at least 20 points per game in the same season was Michael Jordan in 1987.
And he has one year left on his contract and a love for his hometown of Los Angeles, so for one year or more the Raptors have the best player in the gym on just about any night in the East now. In Cleveland, LeBron was always the atom bomb; last year’s sweep was marked by his turnaround virtuosity in Game 2, his running buzzer-beater in Game 3, his ability to control anything or everything.
“Our team lost the best player in the world, so that’s pretty tough,” said Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue.
Now the Raptors have their version of that guy, for a year. Leonard, for his part, is matter-of-fact about how good he is. Asked about adjustment the day before the debut, he said, “It’s a lot of details that come into the game rather than just coming out and shooting the ball. I can do that with my skill level, just come out and shoot every possession. I try to win games and I’m trying to be adaptive to the offence, figure out where guys want to shoot the ball, where I’m going to get my shots off at so we can keep rolling.”
He was asked after the game, how close are you to the player you were? And he said, “I can only see what’s in front of me right now and there’s nothing I’m looking back, saying I want to get back to that level. It’s about right now and what I need to do to be the best player for the Raptors, and that’s what my focus is.”
It will be a year-long date, with a fork in the road at the end. Green, who was with Leonard in San Antonio, knows him best among his teammates.
“He’s an ultimate competitor,” says Green. “He wants to be great, bottom line. It’s not about money, city; he wants to win games and be great. And obviously there may be places that he wants to do it in, close to home, you never know.
“But if he can get that here or wherever, he’s going to be there or stay there. Where he feels he can play his best basketball, and have fun, I think that’s what it’s about.”
They bumbled a bit to start, but it was OK. They’re still getting to know one another. He can be better, and so can they. Welcome to the season of Kawhi. It won’t be boring.
Bruce Arthur is a Toronto-based sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @bruce_arthur