LOS ANGELES — It took Kawhi Leonard less than two minutes to show why the LA Clippers went to great lengths to get the superstar forward.
Making his Clippers preseason debut, Leonard hit a 14-footer, stole a pass from Gary Harris and then buried a step-back 3-pointer in the span of 21 seconds during the first two minutes Thursday night. In an abbreviated 10-minute, 45-second appearance in the first half, Leonard scored 7 points and dished 6 assists with no turnovers during a 111-91 loss to the Denver Nuggets.
Leonard said he’s still rusty as he makes his way back slowly into his NBA Finals MVP form following a long championship run with Toronto. But the Clippers — who played without Paul George, Patrick Beverley and Rodney McGruder — said they were impressed with their first on-court in-game experience with the All-Star forward.
“He looked like the player that he is, the best player in the world,” guard Landry Shamet said. “He has a presence about him when he is on the floor, just feels a little different, how he carries himself, how he plays.”
Despite saying that he feels much better entering this preseason than he did a year ago with the Raptors coming off a quadriceps injury, Leonard, 28, has taken things slowly and the Clippers are being cautious with their star acquisition. The Clippers spent all last season recruiting the forward and, to get Leonard to sign as a free agent, gave up five first-round picks, the right to two first-round pick swaps, promising point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari in a trade with Oklahoma City for George.
Leonard was actually ruled out for Thursday’s game against the Nuggets on Wednesday night, but Clippers coach Doc Rivers said the forward wanted to play and felt ready for limited minutes after going through a rigorous 4-on-4 warm-up before the game.
“It felt good,” Leonard said. “We prepared for this moment. Felt great to just be out there getting a rhythm.”
But Leonard added that there was some rust as he shot 3-for-6 from the field, including 1-for-3 from behind the arc.
“For sure,” Leonard said of getting up to speed in his first 10 days of camp. “I mean, I haven’t played no type of contact basketball, no pickup at all. Normally don’t do that. Really wasn’t able to work out like I wanted to this summer, but it’s always rest if you are not playing. It’s a long season. This is what the preseason is for and also the practices in the regular season.”
Judging by some of the six assists he delivered, Leonard might not need much practice to get used to his big men. He hit JaMychal Green for a 3-pointer for the game’s opening basket. He hit Montrezl Harrell for a cutting dunk and connected with Ivica Zubac three times for baskets inside. He also hit Mo Harkless on a cutting layup.
Leonard has had six assists without a turnover only once in his career, back on Jan. 15, 2014, when he had six assists and no turnovers in a San Antonio victory over Utah.
“I didn’t think he showed us what he got in practice,” Zubac said with a laugh. “Man, tonight out there, he looked amazing.”
“Tonight he showed who he is. That’s Kawhi,” Zubac added. “We don’t have much time [together] yet but it felt kind of natural.”
The Clippers host Australian squad Melbourne United on Sunday before finishing up the preseason next Thursday in Vancouver, British Columbia, against the Dallas Mavericks. Rivers said it is possible that Leonard could play in that preseason finale as a final tune-up for the regular season, which the Clippers open Oct. 22 against the Los Angeles Lakers.
Leonard said it was fun to make his preseason debut at Staples Center but added that the Clippers still have plenty of work to do.
“I feel the emotions either just getting ready for the game or when I did sign here, thinking about what could happen or what’s going to happen and being able to play in the Staples Center 45 minutes away from my home where I grew up,” said Leonard, who is from Moreno Valley, California. “[But] once I step on the floor, it is lock-in time for me.”