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Raptors forward Leonard 'feels great' after first 5-on-5 session since January

BURNABY, B.C. — Kawhi Leonard leaned back against the gym wall Tuesday as Alex McKechnie, the Toronto Raptors' director of sports science, carefully wrapped Leonard's knees in preventative ice. Every camera in the gym captured the moment.

BURNABY, B.C. — Kawhi Leonard leaned back against the gym wall Tuesday as Alex McKechnie, the Toronto Raptors' director of sports science, carefully wrapped Leonard's knees in preventative ice.

Every camera in the gym captured the moment.

In one of the most anticipated season storylines not only in Toronto but across the NBA, the six-foot-seven forward stepped on the court as a Raptor for the first time Tuesday. Leonard was all smiles when he stepped off it. 

"It felt great. Just talking to the guys, I told them I haven't played a five-on-five since January, the last time I played. It felt great to just run up and down and compete," he said.

Leonard, who was acquired in the blockbuster trade that sent DeMar DeRozan to San Antonio, is coming off a bizarre final season in San Antonio that saw him play just nine games due to a quadriceps injury. He was virtually unseen for the Spurs down the stretch before it ended in a messy divorce. 

Arriving with the reputation as a man of few words, the two-time NBA defensive player of the year was accommodating with reporters at Fortius Sport & Health on Tuesday. He had kind words for Nick Nurse, for whom Tuesday was also a day of firsts.

"He's open-minded, ready to adjust on the fly," Leonard said of Nurse, who is running his first training camp as an NBA head coach. "Just a brilliant mind, loves the game of basketball. I've got to talk to him more. It's just my first practice. We've got to develop a good relationship."

The 51-year-old Nurse, whom the Raptors promoted after they fired Dwane Casey on the heels of a disappointingly brief post-season, said Leonard "looked good."

"You can certainly see his level at times," Nurse said. "He's a little rusty out there but you can certainly see his strength, his vision, his ball handling, those kind of things."

Norm Powell first met the 27-year-old Leonard in his junior year in high school, when he was on a recruiting trip at San Diego State (Powell eventually went to UCLA). Jeremy Castleberry, Leonard's good friend who would follow him to San Antonio as part of the Spurs coaching staff and now works for the Raptors, hosted Powell on that trip.

"I met Kawhi and some of the guys on the team, so I've known him for a while," Powell said.

Powell has kept a close eye on Leonard ever since.  

"He just evolved his game, I knew that he could really impact the game both sides of the court . . . he's a talented individual offensively and defensively, got great intangibles, long arms, big hands, athletic, and he uses them to the best of his abilities," Powell said. "I've watched him grow, tried to look after him on the defensive side, tried to take some of the things that he does and incorporate them into my game defensively, so I'm excited to be able to learn from him and have him as a teammate."

Leonard, who led the Spurs to the 2014 NBA title, earning finals MVP honours in the process, looked in great shape and "locked in" on Tuesday, Powell said.  

"He made some big plays, still trying to find his rhythm and everything like that, but he looks good, first five-on-five being back."

His addition makes for a collection of wings that is breathtaking in its collective athleticism, with Danny Green, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam and Powell.

"We've got a lot of guys who can do a lot of different things, we've got a lot of shooters, we've got a lot of playmakers, we've got a lot of attackers, we've got a lot of good guys on the defensive end, so we can just throw many different lineups out there and have us do a bunch of different things," Powell said. "It's a good thing to have so many guys who are so versatile and can impact the game in different ways."

In a league full of so-called basketball junkies, Leonard's is reputed to be among the biggest, so it was of little surprise he said he relished Tuesday's challenge of stepping onto the court with new teammates.

"I enjoy a new challenge. It's a new team for me," he said. "It's going to take some time. They did a great job of letting us move along with the drills pretty quickly, conditioning drills. It was a great practice today. I enjoyed it. Come back (Tuesday night), get some shots up and get ready for Round 2."

Tuesday marked Day 1 of the first training camp without Casey in eight years.

"It was different, (Nurse) has his own things, the way he does them," Siakam said. "Just little things he does that are different from the past. We all have to circle in the middle. We have to have a perfect circle, different things that he just adds with his own little touch.

"It feels different. Instead of a huddle we do a big circle and everyone looks at each other in the face."

Camp runs through Friday, then the Raptors open the pre-season on Saturday against the Portland Trailblazers at Rogers Arena in Vancouver.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press