Kawhi Leonard could be Raptors' missing link

San Diego State draft prospect Kawhi Leonard works out for the Raptors Wednesday at the Air Canada...

San Diego State draft prospect Kawhi Leonard works out for the Raptors Wednesday at the Air Canada Centre. (DAVE THOMAS/QMI Agency)

MIKE GANTER, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 5:04 AM ET

TORONTO - He’s a tenacious defender and rebounder with a well deserved reputation as a gym rat.

Is there anything else the Toronto Raptors need to know about Kawhi Leonard?

Leonard may not bring the kind of name recognition in the 2011 draft class that a Kyrie Irving, Derrick Williams or even Brandon Knight do, but what he does bring are the kinds of tools that were decidedly lacking on the Raptors roster this past season.

The 6-foot-7 small forward out of San Diego State may as well be the poster boy for everything the Raptors wished they had this past season.

Leonard was one of six draft prospects, including GTA products Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph, who worked out for the Raptors on Wednesday at the Air Canada Centre.

Leonard is one of those player’s whose draft stock has improved since the process began and while he’s not about to put any faith in what a mock draft published by some media outlet might say, he did acknowledge teams he has worked out for have been impressed with his improved shooting.

Leonard’s shooting, particularly his shooting from long range was one of, if not the weakest part of his game this past year.

“Nobody sees me working out from the public but the coaches who have seen my workouts have told me they can see the development in my shot and how hard I have been working,” Leonard said. “They like how my release point comes off now. It feels good right now and I’m more confident.”

Leonard shot a dismal .291 from the NCAA three-point line last season but then he hooked up with agent Brian Elfus who immediately set out to change that perception.

Elfus has had him training at Impact Basketball in Las Vegas for the past 3 1/2 weeks — working on his shooting with well known shot doctor Joe Abunassar

There’s no question that outside of an improved defence and better rebounding the next need on the Raptors wish list is a consistent outside shooter.

Leonard may not be there yet, but he’s making progress.

Jim Kelly, the Raptors senior director of player personnel and a guy who is based on the west coast, has seen Leonard enough to know the player he saw Wednesday and the one he watched in game action over the past two years are not the same player.

“His shooting touch has definitely improved since late in the season,” Kelly said. “I think his proficiency at three-point shooting was probably as good as anyone here today.”

Leonard is not a talkative sort by nature, but he knows the process entails selling himself and he was playing along Wednesday.

He had never been to Canada before the workout but says he would have no problem coming to Toronto if he were drafted. “I want to be an NBA player no matter who drafts me,” Leonard said.

And don’t misinterpret his off-court, laid back style to what he does once the lights go on.

“The game of basketball is a totally different thing than just being with your fans and chillin’,” Leonard said. “Once I get on the court it’s a different story. It’s a game of basketball and I put my passion and love into it.”

Leonard doesn’t do anything half way when it comes to basketball.

Abunassar learned that early on in their relationship.

“We literally have to kick him out of the gym,” Abunassar told Mark Zeigler of the San Diego Union Tribune. “It’s like, ‘You have to go home.’ He’ll keep a ball after a workout and go over to a side basket and get someone to rebound for him. Before you know it, he’s into another shooting session.”

The secret to Leonard’s defensive and rebounding prowess can be found in his impressive 7-foot-3 wingspan that is a tad freakish on a 6-foot-7 frame. And if his wingspan doesn’t impress, the size of his hands will stop a stranger in his tracks. Palming a basketball is child’s play to Leonard whose hands measure 9 3/8 inches or about two full inches larger than the average male.

Leonard may or may not wind up in Toronto on draft night, but there’s no denying his skill set is exactly the type the Raptors lacked in their lineup last year.

mike.ganter@sunmedia.ca


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