Kawhi Leonard's return timeline a mystery for Clippers with training camp days away

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Utah Jazz forward Royce O'Neale, rear, fouls Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard.
Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard drives to the basket in front Utah Jazz forward Royce O'Neale during Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals on June 8. Leonard sustained a partially torn ACL in the series. (Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

When the Clippers open training camp Tuesday at San Diego State University, their star who once called that campus home will be on the sideline continuing a knee rehabilitation whose timetable remains hazy.

Though the team’s president of basketball operations said Friday that Kawhi Leonard has worked out hard since surgery in July to expedite his return from what the team termed a partially torn anterior cruciate ligament, whether Leonard could play at some point this season has received little discussion internally.

“I think at this point, it’s just no one knows when you’re dealing with a recovery from an ACL, the timeframe,” Lawrence Frank said during a call with reporters. “To save you [reporters] throughout the year, no one knows. You just attack it day by day. He has a very detailed plan with a great group and we'll just let his body and the doctors tell us when it's the right time.”

Orthopedic surgeons and an athletic trainer for an NBA team said in August that the typical recovery window for an ACL injury is nine months to one year. The postseason will begin in April, nine months after Leonard’s July 13 surgery.

Leonard isn’t the only Clipper to begin camp at less than full strength.

Center Serge Ibaka, a splashy addition in 2020 free agency before a back injury limited him to just 43 games, has made “terrific progress” after surgery in June yet will be limited to non-contact work to begin practices, Frank said. Additionally, rookie point guard Jason Preston injured his right foot during a workout Thursday. The team is still assessing the severity of the injury.

“It could be a little bit of a setback,” Frank said, for a player he described as having made strong improvements since the end of the Las Vegas Summer League in August on his playmaking and pick-and-roll decisions.

With Leonard out a significant amount of time, the rest of the expected rotation will carry a heavier burden, beginning with fellow All-Star forward Paul George.

Clippers guard Paul George tries to drive between Phoenix's Jae Crowder and Deandre Ayton.
Clippers guard Paul George, center, tries to drive between Phoenix's Jae Crowder, left, and Deandre Ayton during Game 6 of the Western Conference finals on June 26. (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

“I think he's looking forward to the challenge,” Frank said. “He's been in this position before, in other places, probably more Indiana ... than Oklahoma City, but I think Paul has shown over the course of the career that he's more than capable to rise to the challenge.

“And I think as a competitor, obviously you'd love for Kawhi to be there from day one, but we also understand what we're dealing with and he's looking forward to it.”

Surrounding George will be a roster strong on familiarity but also headlined by a new face at guard: Eric Bledsoe. Spreading around the ballhandling responsibility and increasing the Clippers’ driving ability was the reasoning for trading Patrick Beverley, a defensive pest described as the team’s aging but emotional heartbeat, and guard Rajon Rondo in exchange for the former Clipper.

Bledsoe averaged 12.2 points with New Orleans last season, his lowest average since his third season. That included 44.7% shooting on his 9.3 drives per game. The team is hoping Bledsoe will become their latest successful reclamation project, after forward Nicolas Batum and point guard Reggie Jackson each followed a difficult 2019-20 with career-reviving seasons. .

Bledsoe, 31, “is only a couple years removed from being a first-team All-Defensive player,” Frank said. “I think he has a lot to prove and is very motivated to prove it.”

The Clippers’ 15th and final roster spot for the regular season remains open entering camp. One competitor will be Amir Coffey, the versatile forward who was a restricted free agent coming off two years on a two-way contract with the Clippers. He was expected to sign another two-way deal with the team Friday, Frank said, but should he win the roster spot, his contract can be converted to a standard NBA deal.

Would the Clippers actually use their 15th spot on a forward used predominantly around the perimeter? With Ibaka injured, the roster has only one traditional big man ready to go in Ivica Zubac, who is coming off a season-ending MCL sprain suffered in the conference finals. Though the Clippers could experiment more often with smaller lineups based on their success in the playoffs, they figure to need taller depth.

Isaiah Hartenstein, a 23-year-old 7-footer, and Harry Giles, a 6-11 former top recruit whose career has yet to fulfill its promise, will compete on training-camp contracts, with Hartenstein’s ability to make plays for others seen by some as perhaps giving him a slight edge.

Keeping Leonard, on a four-year contract worth $176 million, allowed the team to reach its second goal of retaining a core of veterans that includes Batum and Jackson, who helped secure the franchise's first conference finals appearance.

“The fact that [Leonard] not only decided to remain a Clipper but that he's firmly planted his flag in the ground I think it's great, it's validation of a lot of different things,” Frank said. “I think the organization that [team owner Steve Ballmer] and the group has built where a talent like Kawhi wants to be a Clipper for a long time is, it's great validation of all the efforts. It, I think, says a lot about his teammates.

“It says a lot about Ty [Lue] and the coaching staff, says a lot about just where we're at, and where we're trying to go, and our goal every year is to compete for championships and that's what Kawhi is.”

As for the vaccination status of those on the roster, Frank said that he is a “huge advocate” for vaccination against COVID-19 but that “in regard to speaking on behalf of players or staff, I'm not comfortable sharing that type of information.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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