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 back from training camp and replace him with Boston Celtics player Derrick White for the upcoming Olympic Games in Paris ultimately rested with Team USA.

“We just felt like we had to pivot, and not get into the details, in terms of what went into the decision, but we just felt like it was in our best interest, but also in the best interest of the Clippers and Kawhi, to go in a different direction,” Hill said Wednesday night at 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.”

When asked directly if 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 discussions with the Clippers about that.”

Leonard’s status was uncertain going into training camp after he missed the final three games of the Clippers’ first-round playoff series against the Dallas Mavericks because of inflammation in his right knee. Leonard said over the weekend that he wasn’t fully back on the court and training normally until two weeks before training camp began. At that point, he finally believed he would be able to compete in the Olympics this year.

He arrived at the start of training camp with a sleeve on his right leg and appeared to be limping slightly, even though he had participated in each of the previous four days of training.

“I think he wanted to be here, just like all of these other guys, and we definitely don’t take that lightly,” Hill said. “It speaks volumes about the program and the opportunity, and so I know personally what it’s like to want to do something and your body just isn’t right. And I’ve been through that myself. And so I applaud him for coming here and being willing to make the sacrifices, giving up his summer and representing our country and playing for our program. … Ultimately, it didn’t work out.”

Leonard’s playoff-season knee injury marked the third consecutive time his postseason has been ended prematurely due to injury, not counting the entire 2021-22 season he missed after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in that same right knee during the 2021 playoffs.

Now he will not participate in the upcoming Olympic Games. White would take his place.

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

Hill was asked about Brown’s tweets and he dismissed the idea that the shoe company had anything to do with the decision to select White, adding that the hardest part of his job is cutting someone from this team.

“You get 12 spots and you have to put a team together,” Hill said. “And one of the hardest things is taking guys off the roster that I’m a fan of and that I enjoy watching all season, all playoffs. Guys that have been Finals MVPs, guys that have been a part of the program, guys that have won gold medals, guys that I respect and admire and enjoy watching. But the responsibility that I have is to put a team together and a team that complements each other, a team that fits, a team that gives us the best chance to be successful.

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

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

Ultimately, that led Team USA to select White. Last month, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that White would be the player to replace Leonard if he couldn’t go to Paris.

Hill said White would not be coming to Las Vegas because he needed to prepare before his unexpected departure for the coming month. He hopes White will be ready in time to join the team in Abu Dhabi for the first practice on Saturday.

“It’s obviously mixed feelings, but we’re very happy to welcome Derrick White,” said Hill.

“I’m a huge Derrick fan, that goes without saying. He just won a championship. One of the many things that I really love about Derrick, and especially about his team, is that I don’t feel like his role changes much with our team from what he does with the Celtics. He’s playing with two incredibly great young players in Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. And it’s a tough environment when you come in and you’re the center of your universe, and now you have to create 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 against guys, complement others, but then also stand out and be a dynamic defensive player, make shots, just be an impact on winning.”

As for the other injury concern — that of Kevin Durant, who has yet to practice after suffering a calf injury about 10 days into training camp and missing Wednesday night’s 86-72 win over Canada — Hill said Durant would fly to Abu Dhabi and remain with the team.

“Durant will be on the plane unless you know something,” Hill said. “He’s 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 field when we get to Abu Dhabi.”

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