SAN ANTONIO – All-NBA forward Kawhi Leonard, sidelined since the preseason with tendinopathy in his right quadriceps, is expected to make his season debut Tuesday night in a road game against Dallas.
Leonard officially was listed as "probable" for the game on the team's injury report Monday afternoon. He participated in the Spurs’ workout earlier in the day, but was not made available to the media afterward. Leonard was shooting free throws when the workout was opened to the media.
The Spurs released their injury report a few minutes before 5 on Monday.
Earlier, point guard Tony Parker chuckled after practice when he was asked if Leonard would play Tuesday.
"I guess, I guess. I don't know," Parker said. "We'll see tomorrow."
Parker chuckled again before continuing.
"He's looking good," he said. "He's practicing with us, so it's nice to see the whole team together."
Leonard, the Silver and Black’s leading scorer the past three seasons and NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2015 and 2016, has not played in a game since reinjuring his left ankle last May in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals. The tendinopathy is unrelated to the ankle injury, the Spurs have said.
"We're just going to be excited to have him back and see how he feels," center Pau Gasol said.
If Leonard plays Tuesday, he will make his season debut two weeks after Parker returned to the lineup following surgery in May to repair the ruptured tendon in his left quadriceps.
Parker said the Silver and Black will go through a period of adjustment after Leonard returns from his long absence on the court.
"It's going to take some time because whatever they were doing even before I came back, they were doing well, and I had to adjust and make sure I don't disrupt what was going on," Parker said. "Kawhi is going to have to do the same thing. It's going to be Pop's (coach Gregg Popovich) decision at the end of the day. Me, as a point guard, (I'll) try to do the best job I can to keep everybody happy and make sure that everybody get their rhythm and playing well."
Speaking before last Monday night’s home game against Detroit, Leonard said he was close to returning.
“I feel good,” he said. “It’s soon to come that I’ll be able to play on the floor. I’m feeling pretty healthy right now.”
Leonard said that he had been playing five-on-five in workouts, but still hadn’t been cleared to play by doctors.
“That’s where I’m at right now,” Leonard said. “It’s been good. Still, I’ve got to go through a few more processes and I should be back soon.”
Leonard’s brief session with the media was the first time he had commented publicly about his injury.
Popovich said after the team’s annual Silver and Black scrimmage on Sept. 30 that Leonard probably would miss the entire preseason as he rehabbed the injury. Popovich didn’t give a timetable for his return, and about all he’s said on the subject since then is that Leonard will be back “sooner rather than later.”
Popovich stuck with that four-word reply Friday when he was asked whether Leonard would make his debut during a set of three road games that started Saturday night in Phoenix.
The Silver and Black returned to San Antonio after edging the Suns 104-101 for their fourth consecutive victory, and took the day off Sunday. They are scheduled to fly to Dallas after Monday’s workout.
After meeting the Mavericks on Tuesday, the Spurs will be off until playing at Houston on Friday and Dallas again on Saturday at the AT&T Center.
Leonard’s slower-than-expected recovery has perplexed Popovich, who said he’s never seen an injury like Leonard’s. Popovich said in early November that Leonard wasn’t progressing as fast as Parker in his rehab work.
“He’s just coming around more slowly, for whatever reason,” Popovich said of Leonard. “It’s just been more difficult for him to get through the rehab routine, so his body hasn’t reacted the same way (as Parker) . . . It’s just taken a little bit longer.”
The Spurs have gone 19-8 this season without Leonard, who was a finalist for the league’s MVP Award last season after averaging career-highs of 25.5 points and 3.5 assists last. He added 5.8 rebounds in 33.4 minutes while shooting .485 from the floor, .381 from the three-point line and a career-high .880 from the free-throw line.
Kyle Anderson started for Leonard in the team’s first 23 games this season, but he sustained a knee injury in a 90-87 road loss to Oklahoma City on Dec. 3. Rudy Gay stepped in for Anderson, and has started the past four games at small forward.
"I think both of them did a great job," Parker said of Anderson and Gay. "It's not easy to replace him. Overall, they did a great job. They did it their way, but it was effective."
Gasol said that the silver lining to Leonard's extended absence is that it gave other players an opportunity to see more playing time and expand their games.
"Absence of certain players, especially when they're important ones, forces other players to step up, take more responsibility, assume or take up a bigger role," Gasol said. "That's positive, I guess, in that regard. The team has performed well overall this season, and we can be proud of the work that we've done so far.
"Now it's about Kawhi coming back and incorporate him and having everyone healthy on the court and available ready to play, and build, not the chemistry, but just transition him into the lineup and adjust to that, and be just as good or better."
Like Parker, Gasol praised Anderson and Gay.
"I think they've done really well," Gasol said. "Kyle is one of the guys that benefited, for sure, from Kawhi's absence, taking that starting lineup spot and performing well. Rudy has also. Now small forwards can play the power forward, too, and a lot of teams play small. So, they assume a bigger role anyway.
"I think they've done great and they performed really well, and they took advantage of the opportunity. Now let's see how they adjust to a smaller role when Kawhi gets back in the lineup and takes up substantial minutes."
While Leonard is poised to return to the court, Anderson remains sidelined with a sprained MCL.
Leonard, 26, has made the first unit of the All-NBA Team each of the past three seasons and was a finalist for the defensive player of the year award last season. He made the All-Defensive Second Team in 2013-14, and is the only Spur to ever win multiple Defensive Player of the Year awards.
Leonard played two seasons at San Diego State before turning pro in 2015. He was selected by Indiana with the 15th overall pick in the NBA draft that year, but was subsequently traded to San Antonio for George Hill on draft night. Leonard is in his seventh season with the Spurs.
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