The Toronto Raptors must embrace Kawhi Leonard

There was a major trade in the National Basketball League on July 18th, 2018. The Toronto Raptors traded Demar Derozan, Jakob Poltl, and a protected first round pick to the San Antonio Spurs for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. Demar Derozan meant everything to the Toronto Raptors and Kawhi Leonard meant everything to the San Antonio Spurs.

To see these two players leave their respective teams and cities (i.e., Toronto, Ontario and San Antonio, Texas) to settle elsewhere was unfathomable. There are great consequences in terms of the mental health of each all-star that must be addressed. The obvious concern is the mental health of Demar Derozan since he has been a vocal advocate for mental health since last season. The lesser-known concern is the mental health of Kawhi Leonard. Kawhi does not have a history of publicly known mental health concerns, like the majority of professional athletes. But there are signs of stress and that something is amiss. It would be wise for the Toronto Raptors to recognise these signs if they want to embrace Kawhi Leonard and have a memorable 2018-2019 season. Let’s take a closer look…

The Obvious:

Kawhi Loenard is an all-star. He is the defensive player of the year in 2015-2016 and in 2016-2017. He was even named the Most Valuable Player of the 2014 NBA finals. These awards and forms of recognition are well known to the public and to NBA fans. He has been consistently ranked among the top 5 players in the NBA and he has been unanimously declared the most well rounded all-star. He is a hard worker, passionate, and strategic basketball player and he has always been a good fit with the San Antonio Spurs and their legendary All-Star roster.

The Less Obvious:

Equally important is the idea that Kawhi is an introvert. Long ago, Myers and Myers (1980) explained that introverts hide their inner worlds and rarely let people in, which can mislead others into thinking they understand when they are in fact mistaken. Being around people can be exhaustive for introverts and they need seclusion to regain their composure under stressful situations. I am sure that members of the San Antonio Spurs organisation and their fans recognise these personality traits in Kawhi.

Kawhi Leonard has a reputation for being injury prone. In 2017-2018, he suffered from reoccurring quadriceps tendinopathy and he was limited to 9 games before being shut down for the remainder of the regular season and first round of the playoffs. Coaches and teammates questioned the significance of the injury with one of these questions being made public when the Spurs’ legendary point guard, Tony Parker, explained that his injury, an identical diagnosis, was 100 times worse. For an introvert such as Kawhi, this amounts to a direct attack. He was disturbed and irritated that these questions were asked by people that he trusted.

When the media and fans saw Kawhi isolating himself from teammates and from public engagements, they started to perceive these behaviours negatively. In their view, Kawhi was avoiding his responsibilities as a leader of the Spurs organisation by providing regular updates on his physical health. In fact, introverts are known to be deeply reflective, respond slowly, and they communicate frequently through individual exchanges, not with the mass media.

Gregg Popovich needed to play a significant role in sheltering Kawhi from the media and frustrated sections of the fan base. Instead, he provided responses that failed to ease the minds of the media and the fan base. Also, Tim Duncan is no longer around to provide any shelter and Lamarcus Aldridge seems preoccupied with leading the team on the court, not off the court. Clearly, Kawhi’s mental health was affected during the 2017-2018 season.

Two other variables appeared to affect his mental health.

First, Kawhi’s contract is set to expire after the upcoming season and there were rumours that he was unhappy with the recruitment efforts of the Spurs management to attract all-stars aside from Lamarcus Aldridge in 2015. Coincidently, recruitment efforts are expedited and heavily dependent on relationships between players as they compete for Team USA at the Olympic Games or spend time together in the off-season. Kawhi’s personality prevents him from being close to other NBA players in the same manner as extroverts (e.g., Steph Curry, Lebron James) that thrive on building these relationships and augmenting their public persona.

Second, there were rumblings about disputes between the Jordan Brand and Kawhi Leonard. A deal was nearly reached before being withdrawn and it appears as though Kawhi believed that his valuation should have been greater than the offer based on precedents set with other NBA all-star players such as Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul. Again, for an introvert, this amounts to disrespect and can be very irritating.

The Toronto Raptors must recognize these events and how they affected Kawhi Leonard’s mental health. In Kawhi, they have an All-Star that will be irritated by being thrust into the spotlight or expected to hold routine media sessions. He cannot be the face of the franchise. For the Toronto Raptors, Kyle Lowry is better suited. Remember, Kawhi has few endorsement deals and zero social media presence (the Jordan Brand might have factored this notion into his low valuation). Simply put, Kawhi cannot be expected to be a vocal leader for the young players in the locker room. Kawhi will lead by example and for these young players; there is no greater example to follow in the NBA. Danny Green can be expected to provide historical insights and Masai Uriji is wise to have included him into the deal so the Toronto Raptors may better embrace Kawhi Leonard.

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