Team USA’s call on Kawhi Leonard, Derrick White, Grant Hill says

Team USA's call on Kawhi Leonard, Derrick White, Grant Hill says

LAS VEGAS — Team USA executive director Grant Hill said the decision to send LA Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard home from training camp and replace him with Boston Celtics guard Derrick White on the roster for the upcoming Paris Olympic Games ultimately rested with Team USA.

“We just felt that we had to pivot, and not to get into the particulars, in terms of what went into the decision, but we just felt it was in our best interest, but also in the Clippers’ and Kawhi’s best interest, to move into a different direction,” Hill said Wednesday evening in a news conference before Team USA’s first exhibition game against Team Canada at T-Mobile Arena. “We tried. I think we all tried and we gave it a valiant effort, and unfortunately, we have to move forward.”

Asked directly whether that meant it was Hill’s, and by extension Team USA’s, decision to send Leonard home, he said, “We did. Ultimately he was sent home, but we were in conversation with the Clippers on that.”

Leonard’s status was up in the air coming into camp after he missed the final three games of the Clippers’ first-round playoff series against the Dallas Mavericks with right knee inflammation. Leonard said over the weekend that he wasn’t able to fully get back onto the court and work out normally until about two weeks before training camp began, at which point he said he finally believed he’d be able to take part in this year’s Olympics.

He arrived for the start of camp wearing a sleeve on his right leg and seemingly with a slight limp, although he participated in each of the past four days of training camp.

“I think he wanted to be here, like all these guys want to be here, and we don’t take that lightly at all,” Hill said. “It speaks to the program and the opportunity, and so, personally speaking, I know what it’s like to want to do something and your body’s just not right. And I’ve lived that personally. And so I applaud him for coming here and being willing to sacrifice, give up his summer and represent our country and play for our program. … Ultimately, it didn’t work out.”

Leonard’s knee injury in the playoffs marked the third time in a row that his postseason ended prematurely because of injury — not including the entire missed 2021-22 season after tearing his ACL in that same right knee during the 2021 playoffs.

Now, he won’t be part of the upcoming Olympics — with White being tapped to take his place.

White’s selection meant that Jaylen Brown, his Celtics teammate who is coming off winning both Eastern Conference Finals MVP and NBA Finals MVP en route to Boston claiming the title, was not picked. After White’s selection was announced, Brown first tweeted a series of emojis and then tweeted at Nike, “this what we doing?” Nike is a sponsor of Team USA.

Hill was asked about Brown’s tweets and shot down the idea that the shoe company had anything to do with the decision to pick White. He added that leaving anyone off this team is the most difficult part of his job.

“You get 12 spots, and you have to build a team,” Hill said. “And one of the hardest things is leaving people off the roster that I’m a fan of that I look forward to watching throughout the season, throughout the playoffs. Guys who’ve been Finals MVPs, guys who’ve been a 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.

“And, so, whatever theories that might be out there, they’re just that. But that’s my responsibility. And it’s tough. It’s tough to have conversations, tell people that they’re not on the team.

“I’m trying to win and I’m trying to put together the right pieces that fit and give us a chance to win.”

Ultimately, that led to Team USA choosing White, who ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported last month would be the player picked to replace Leonard if he were unable to go to Paris.

Hill said White wouldn’t be coming to Las Vegas, as White needed to prepare before taking off unexpectedly for the next month, with the hope being White will be ready in time to join the team in Abu Dhabi for its first practice there Saturday.

“It’s bittersweet, obviously, but we’re, we’re thrilled to add Derrick White,” Hill said.

“I’ve been a big fan of Derrick’s, obviously. He just won a championship. One of the many things that I really love about Derrick, and particularly with his team, is I don’t feel like his role changes much with our team from what he does with the Celtics. He plays alongside two incredibly great young players in Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. And this setting is hard when you come in and you’re the center of your universe, and now you have to establish a role, and it might be different than what you have to do with your team. And so to have someone who can come in and play off of guys, be complementary to some others, but then also stand out and be a dynamite defensive player, knock down shots, just impact winning.”

As for the other lingering injury question — that being Kevin Durant, who has yet to practice after suffering a calf strain about 10 days before training camp began and who sat out Wednesday night’s 86-72 win over Canada — Hill said Durant would be flying to Abu Dhabi and remain with the team.

“Durant will be on the plane, unless you know something,” Hill said. “He has been working, rehabbing, he’s looked great. I think we’re just being cautious and conservative. I think we expect to see him on the court when we’re in Abu Dhabi.”

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