Kawhi Leonard on the joy of finally being back from a ‘devastating’ injury

LOS ANGELES — Kawhi Leonard doesn’t tend to exaggerate.

So the word he chose to describe how he felt after suffering a partial cruciate ligament tear in his right knee during an NBA title boost in 2021 was particularly telling.

“It was just devastating to get injured during this period, in the playoffs, when you’re on a good run,” Leonard told FOX Sports this week in his first exclusive interview since the incident.

Leonard suffered the injury in Game 4 of the LA Clippers Western Conference Semifinals series against Utah when he was fouled by Joe Ingles while heading for the basket. Grimacing in pain, Leonard limped off the field before returning to play for another 45 seconds. The injury would derail the Clippers’ title run and sideline Leonard for 493 days, including all of last season.

Teammate Marcus Morris still has an issue with the way Ingles made contact with Leonard and unbalanced him, the first time anyone on the Clippers has suggested the game was dirty.

“I felt like it was a cheap shot in a cheap way, probably that’s what hurt the most. It was a non-competitive game,” Morris said this week.

The Clippers and Leonard actually had a good run. At the time, Leonard was 29 and was widely considered the best two-way player in the league. In the first round of the playoffs against Dallas, Leonard shone with two 40-point performances while often guarding Mavericks superstar Luka Doncic. In 11 games this postseason, he averaged 30.4 points on 57% shooting.

When he signed with LA in 2019, Leonard was hailed as the Clippers’ savior, the antidote to their curse of never making it past the second round of the playoffs in the franchise’s 50-year history. After going down in the 2021 playoffs, the Clippers won two more games to reach the Western Conference Finals against Phoenix. But without Leonard’s soft touch, explosiveness and lightning-fast hands, they fell to the Suns in six games.

“I feel like that first part was tougher for me than anything else,” Leonard said as he was sidelined during a promising playoff run.

For the next 16 months, Leonard had to wonder what if. Last season, he watched helplessly as the Clippers missed the postseason entirely.

When asked if the mental anguish of his absence was worse than the physical pain of his injury, Leonard didn’t hesitate.

“That was it,” he said. “I found ways to stay away and just take it one day at a time and make sure my knee is good for this year. I was just trying to take it for what it was. I’ve been able to spend more time with my kids and see them every day.”

Leonard had surgery in July 2021 and went into his rehab, specifically lifting weights. Clint Parks, who coached Leonard from the age of 14 until he left San Diego State in 2011, was surprised by Leonard’s appearance when he saw him during a training session over the summer. Parks couldn’t believe how much more muscle there was around Leonard’s calves, thighs and hamstrings.

“Kawhi is a calculated guy, I’m pretty sure that was intentional to obviously protect his knees,” Parks said.

During last month’s media day, Leonard told reporters he’s “definitely gotten a lot stronger.” He added that he would have played if the Clippers had reached the Finals last season.

Instead, Leonard made his long-awaited return against the Los Angeles Lakers last week. Clippers coach Tyronn Lue and Leonard agreed he would come off the bench to maximize his playing time while under a strict minute limit.

He came on in the middle of the second quarter and initially seemed as if no time had passed. He grabbed two rebounds within a minute and made 16- and 15-foot fadeaways over Juan Toscano-Anderson.

But eventually, Leonard slowed, missed a few shots he would normally take, and looked a lot more human than the tireless gun on either end we’d become accustomed to.

“I thought he was getting tired at times,” Lue said.

In the two games he played, Leonard averaged 12.5 points on 44% shooting, 6.5 rebounds, 2 assists and 1.5 steals in 21 minutes per game.

The Clippers remain wary of their superstar. Leonard missed Tuesday’s game against Oklahoma City after experiencing stiffness in his right knee during the morning shooting. He will also miss Thursday’s game against the Thunder. Lue told reporters that Leonard did not suffer a setback.

It’s going to be a long road for Leonard, but he’s not worried about returning to MVP-caliber form. He believes that will come.

Leonard already proved that when he came back from a quadriceps injury that limited him to just nine games with San Antonio in 2017-18 by winning a championship in Toronto the following season.

Leonard’s work ethic is well known.

When San Antonio picked him the 15th pick overall in the 2011 draft, they hoped he would become an elite defenseman, a Bruce Bowen-type player. But he defied their expectations and instead morphed into a player who can both stop and score against anyone in the league. Under Spurs manager Gregg Popovich, Leonard became a living embodiment of the selfless philosophies and hard work the manager champions.

Leonard went from averaging 7.9 points as a rookie with the Spurs to a career-high 27.1 points with the Clippers in 2019-2020. He’s a two-time champion, two-time Finals MVP, two-time Defensive Player of the Year, and five-time All-Star.

Leonard is more intense than any other player Parks has ever seen. He said Leonard used to bring his own light to the San Diego State gym to light up the court during nighttime workouts. Parks used the word “insane” to describe Leonard’s work ethic, the same word Clippers President Lawrence Frank chose to describe Leonard in June.

For the past four seasons, Morris has witnessed firsthand the dedication his teammate brings to his craft. When Morris was asked if Leonard loves the game any differently than other NBA players, he paused.

“That’s a good question,” Morris said. “Sh– I think so. I hope so. He’s one of the best players. That just shows love because so many people have played. To be in the top 75 to have played the game, you have to do you have another kind of – you must be almost crazy, you know what I mean I guess if crazy is love then yes.

Kawhi Leonard I No. 32 I Nick Wright’s Top 50 NBA Players of the Last 50 Years

Kawhi Leonard I No. 32 I Nick Wright's Top 50 NBA Players of the Last 50 Years

Kawhi Leonard, one of the greatest two-way players of all time, lands at number 32 on Nick’s list.

For Leonard, the devastation of the last 16 months is finally in retrospect.

After his second game in a dimly lit hallway at Crypto.com Arena, Leonard was asked what it meant to be back on the court.

His typically stoic expression gave way to a smile.

“It feels great,” Leonard said. “I put in a lot of work to be the player I am today. And not playing and being young is kind of devastating. But now I’m back. So, I’m very happy.”

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Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She has previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.

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