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NBA Daily: Kawhi Leonard Could Be The Raptors’ Missing Piece

Kawhi Leonard is showing signs of being close to his old self, which should give the rest of the league cause for concern, writes David Yapkowitz.

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When the Toronto Raptors acquired Kawhi Leonard from the San Antonio Spurs in exchange for DeMar DeRozan, it was an interesting scenario in that neither player seemed pleased with the move.

DeRozan made his disdain public through social media while reports suggested that Leonard wasn’t too thrilled about it either. It was a rare case in which both players were unhappy with the trade.

Flash-forward a few months later, and it appears that the Raptors gamble is already starting to pay off. DeRozan was a fan favorite. He was with the team when they were barely winning 20 games a season. He helped carry the franchise to relevance. When given the opportunity to sign elsewhere, he didn’t take any free agent pitches and immediately re-signed with the Raptors while professing his loyalty to the city.

It was a risk for the Raptors to trade a beloved star for a player who might not want to be in Toronto, who might not be fully healthy and could bolt at the end of the season. While it remains to be seen what Leonard decides to do come summertime, this much is clear — he’s going to help them win now.

There is usually little stock put into preseason, and for good reason. Guys are working themselves back into game shape, some players are on a minute restriction, everybody is getting back into a routine. But for someone like Leonard, the preseason holds meaning. Preseason is a way for him to show that he’s fully recovered from the injury that saw him miss the majority of last season.

In his first game action since January, Leonard made his Raptors debut over the weekend when Toronto defeated the Portland Trail Blazers in their preseason opener. Leonard clearly looked like a player who hadn’t taken in the court in quite some time, but there were some very encouraging signs.

He was aggressive throughout the game, attacking the rim and getting to the free throw line 11 times. He didn’t shoot particularly well, but that will all come back to him as he gets his legs back under him. His ability to get to the basket will be a much-needed aspect for the Raptors. Drawing contact and getting to the line was one of DeRozan’s strengths.

And then, in what was probably the most welcoming sign for the Raptors and not so welcoming for the rest of the league, Leonard looked close to his old self last night against the Utah Jazz.

He finished with 17 points, all in the first half, on 50 percent shooting from the field. He also got eight attempts at the free-throw line. He looked much more comfortable, especially on the offensive end where he displayed his ability to score in isolation situations against his defender.

The Raptors are hoping that Leonard is the missing piece to an NBA Finals run. Toronto has been among the Eastern Conference’s elite the past few seasons, but have not been able to put it all together come playoff time.

However, the East looks a little bit different this season. LeBron James is gone, off to Los Angeles. The past several years, the road to the Finals went through Cleveland and no East team was able to do anything about it. It’s much more wide open now with James in L.A.

There’s an argument to be made that when healthy, Leonard is the best player in the Eastern Conference. He’s arguably the league’s best defensive player and he can score with the best of them. Prior to his injury, he was a legit top-5 player in the NBA.

As good as DeRozan was, the Raptors have not had a player of Leonard’s caliber and standing in the league since Vince Carter roamed the Air Canada Centre.

What was even more surprising is that the Raptors were able to hold on to much of their prized depth instead of having to part with it in the trade with San Antonio. The talent is there, surrounding Leonard. All that remains to be seen is how he bounces back and whether he can sustain his player throughout the regular season and playoffs. And if these past two preseason games were any indication, the rest of the league should take notice.

David Yapkowitz has been a staff writer for Basketball Insiders since 2017. Based in Los Angeles, he focuses on the Pacific Division as well as the NBA at large.

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