Team USA carries on without Kawhi Leonard: 'We have to move forward'

LAS VEGAS — There are precious days between now and the start of the Olympic Games in Paris, and it appears like the United States men’s basketball team couldn’t afford to wait on Kawhi Leonard to ramp it up to get to full strength.

USMNT managing director Grant Hill intimated as much in a media session before the team’s exhibition game against Canada. It was clear the decision was made by the team and the Clippers to send Leonard home so he could get himself ready for the NBA season.

“I think we all tried and we gave it a valiant effort and, you know, unfortunately, we have to move forward,” Hill said. “Personally speaking, I know what it's like to want to do something. And, you know, your body's just not right. And so, I applaud him for coming here and willing to sacrifice, give up his summer and represent our country, and play for our program.”

Hill battled through foot and ankle problems after a stellar six-year start to his career, so he can relate on some level with all the injury issues Leonard has suffered. And because Leonard’s first obligation is to the Clippers, neither Hill nor USA Basketball could afford to have a potential injury that would cost him in the regular season.

He didn’t say it, but it was in the air when Hill spoke.

“You sit back and watch the playoffs and hope that everyone's healthy,” Hill said. “And then you take inventory as we get close to camp, and then you hope everyone shows up in shape, you know, and so there's constant worry and concern.

“And you also have to sort of, you know, think worst-case scenario, which is not an easy thing to do.”

Hill didn’t say the decision to replace Leonard caught him by surprise, but given Leonard’s comments Tuesday it would seem so.

“Yeah, I think I will suit up tomorrow,” Leonard said Tuesday. “Everything has been good so far. It’s been at a neutral state and hopefully it stays that way.”

The warp speed the national team has to play with, considering so many other countries are so far ahead in terms of continuity and chemistry, means Leonard couldn’t be slow-walked or treated as a luxury until the medal round began.

If he was going to be there, he was going to have to go every day like the rest of the team and that didn’t seem feasible given where Leonard is in his career. But it seems clear he really wanted to give it a go, contrary to belief that he finds reasons not to play.

"Kawhi gave it everything he had when he was preparing and the last three days for camp," Stephen Curry said after Team USA's 86-72 win in the exhibition game against Canada. "I know he wanted to play. It was one of those things where he wished us luck and go for the gold. Hopefully for the long term he's in a good place, because the game needs him. He's an all-time great player, so we hope that he's ready for the season."

Knee inflammation caused Leonard to miss most of the Clippers’ first-round series against Dallas. He only played two games in last year’s first-round series against the Suns before his knee began acting up.

He missed all of the 2022 playoffs because of an ACL injury he suffered in the second round of the 2021 playoffs against the Utah Jazz. In short, it’s been a litany of injuries, procedures and health hiccups, and the team couldn’t afford to take a chance on something acting up when Leonard just signed a three-year deal with the Clippers.

On the flip side, Hill took Celtics guard Derrick White in Leonard’s stead. White is a versatile defender who can play in spots and a bit role, considering all the star power. NBA Finals MVP Jaylen Brown seemed a bit perturbed on X in the wake, as he wasn’t selected.

He pointed the finger at Nike, a USA Basketball sponsor, as reason why he didn’t get the call. Hill was asked about the Nike connection and Brown.

“Well for a good portion of my career, I wore Fila … that was supposed to be a joke,” Hill deadpanned. “This is about putting together a team. I think just overall, you have incredible interest from an abundance of talent here in the United States.”

“You only have 12 spots. You have to build a team. One of the hardest things is leaving people off a roster that I’m a fan of, that I look forward to watching during the playoffs. Guys who’ve been Finals MVPs, who’ve been part of the program, guys who’ve won gold medals. Guys who I respect, admire and enjoy watching, but the responsibility that I have is to put together a team, and a team that complements each other, a team that fits, a team that will give us the best opportunity for success.”

Either way, it makes for three Boston Celtics on the roster, and could make for tricky dynamics when Brown and White are back on the same team for training camp. Brown was also the Eastern Conference Finals MVP, and cemented himself as a true star this postseason.

White’s name was mentioned weeks ago as someone USA Basketball would take a strong look at, even as the roster was set. With Leonard being selected for the team in early March, it was before the knee inflammation that seemingly ended his strong season and contingency plans were being made.

Bringing in White as opposed to a higher-usage player in Brown seems to indicate Hill and USA Basketball coach Steve Kerr are happy with the star power and players who’ll demand the ball and a lot of attention with it.

Jrue Holiday is the only perimeter stopper on the roster, and White can supplement that without needing to play with the ball.

So Hill has to be the bad guy in this, but it feels like a prudent decision, and one he was prepared to make.

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