TORONTO — Mere minutes into Kawhi Leonard's long-awaited first official appearance as a Toronto Raptor, he was deftly deflecting questions about his long-term future.
The enigmatic Leonard would rather focus on the here and now.
"I look at it as a day-to-day process," he said. "My focus is on this year, this group that I have, and striving to get to a championship. We all want to win, and if you're looking in the future you're going to trip over the present."
Leonard addressed a jam-packed press conference Monday on the eve of training camp, the first time the two-time NBA defensive player of the year had spoken publicly since the blockbuster trade that sent DeMar DeRozan — dubbed "Mr. I Am Toronto" after he proclaimed his desire to remain a Raptor for life — to the San Antonio Spurs.
Leonard, the MVP of the NBA finals in 2014, arrived in Toronto under a cloud of questions, specifically about whether he'll remain a Raptor past this season. The man of few words gave no hints. But he said all the right things about this season at least.
"As long as I have on a jersey I want to play basketball," Leonard said, his enormous hands folded in front of him. "I came here with an open mind. I want to do great things so I'm going to make sure I put in a full effort on the court each and every night.
"By winning games this is how you get star-calibre players to want to come here and play."
The 27-year-old's awkward laugh was a highlight of the press conference, and was trending on Twitter all afternoon.
Danny Green, the former Spurs shooting guard who was part of the deal, played the role of comic relief in a press conference that was tense at moments. He joked with reporters that he was surprised they noticed him sitting with Leonard.
"Oh, you included me, OK," he said, flashing a wide grin. He claimed the Raptors' Drake-inspired "OVO jerseys, that's what sold me (on Toronto)."
Raptors president Masai Ujiri, meanwhile, wasn't laughing. He chastized reporters for casting a negative light on Leonard's arrival. He interjected to answer a question for Leonard and Green about their move to Toronto, years ago considered one of the league's least desirable outposts.
"The narrative of not wanting to come to this city is gone," Ujiri said, to the applause of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Ltd. employees who watched the press conference. "I think that's old and we should move past that. Believe in this city, believe in yourselves."
He repeated his sentiments to a couple dozen reporters afterward.
"It's frustrating because I can't believe a beautiful city like this would not believe in itself," Ujiri said. "We have to move on from that. Man, look at everything in this city: Look at the Leafs. TFC won last year. They won the championship after being killed for how many years? Look at the people. Look at how beautiful it is. Even Kawhi said that. He said that to me.
"To continue to hear about people not wanting to come here is actually irritating after a while. It is. Come on. Let's be real. People like it here."
Leonard was virtually silent and unseen in a strange final season with the Spurs. He missed all but nine games with quadriceps tendinopathy in his right leg. There were reports he was unhappy about how the franchise handled his injury.
Leonard deflected a San Antonio reporter's question at the news conference at Scotiabank Arena. What went wrong? the reporter asked.
"I have no regrets. But I want to focus on this team, this journey that we have in front of us today and just spend on present time and not look back," he said.
The Leonard deal was the biggest piece of an off-season shakeup that included the firing of coach Dwane Casey after the Raptors were ousted by Cleveland in the playoffs for the third straight year.
Among rookie head coach Nick Nurse's first tasks were meetings with Leonard at the new Raptors' San Diego home. He came away impressed.
"As we know, Kawhi is a man of few words, but his actions this summer were similar to what you'd think, he's a serious guy with a great work ethic," Nurse said. "I think he loves basketball, right? There's no doubt about it, he's an astute player from what I can tell already, over a lot of time that we work with him, our relationship will grow. He's a hooper, man. He loves to play, he plays hard and he plays to win."
Nurse said the team would closely monitor Leonard's health through camp and the pre-season.
Leonard's new Raptors teammates said they were "shocked" when they first heard of the off-season trade. All-star guard Kyle Lowry, who'd been hurt to lose his good friend DeRozan, said he looked forward to the new season.
"He's my teammate now so I'm excited to play with him, and I always ride or die for my teammates," Lowry said. "Go out there and play basketball, win as many games as possible, and at the end of the year hold up that trophy."
Backup guard Fred VanVleet said Leonard's quiet nature wouldn't have an effect on team chemistry.
"You could be with somebody for 10 years and not know them. No matter how much they talk," VanVleet said. "How much he wants to give is how much that we can take, it's really up to him. If he wants to talk, cool. . . He's naturally a quiet dude and we're going to welcome him with open arms, and he's going to be a big part of our success."
The Raptors open training camp Tuesday in Burnaby, B.C. They open the pre-season on Saturday at Rogers Arena in Vancouver.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press