Clippers future? Lawrence Frank talks Kawhi Leonard, rebuilding roster

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Los Angeles, CA, Monday, June 14, 2021 - LA Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard (2) slam dunks over Utah Jazz center Derrick Favors (15) late in the first half in game four of the NBA Western Conference semifinals at Staples Center (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)
Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard dunks over Jazz center Derrick Favors during Game 4 of their playoff series. In Game 5, Leonard injured his right knee and missed the rest of the playoffs. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Given their first opportunity of the NBA offseason to remake their roster, the Clippers on Thursday added three young players in the draft to what was one of last season’s older rosters.

President of basketball operations Lawrence Frank described 19-year-old first-round pick Keon Johnson of Tennessee as “one of the highest-level athletes.” The team evaluated Ohio guard Jason Preston — selected at 33rd overall in a trade with Orlando, and who will turn 22 next month — as the draft’s second-highest-rated passer.

If Frank hadn’t been formally barred from welcoming Kentucky’s BJ Boston because the draft-night trade that led to his acquisition was not official, more praise would have likely followed for a 19-year-old once ranked a top-five pick before falling to the 51st overall.

Yet for all of Frank’s rave reviews of the team's new faces, he made clear the offseason will not be complete if they strike out on re-signing familiar names.

All-NBA forward Kawhi Leonard and center Serge Ibaka hold player options for next season and Reggie Jackson and Nicolas Batum are unrestricted free agents.

“We want them back as Clippers,” Frank said.

Clippers forward Nicolas Batum, left, and guard Reggie Jackson react late in the game of a series-clinching win over Utah.
Clippers forward Nicolas Batum, left, and guard Reggie Jackson react in the final moments of a playoff series-clinching victory over Utah. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

In his first public comments since March, Frank stated the obvious: Leonard’s partially torn anterior cruciate ligament in the right knee, which was suffered in June and led to surgery nearly one month later, is expected to require a significant amount of recovery time — and that it hasn’t dimmed one bit their “hope to have, in Kawhi's case, a very long-term relationship with him,” Frank said.

Leonard holds a player option worth $36 million next season. If he declines it and re-signs as an unrestricted free agent, he could earn $39 million next season. The Clippers have long been viewed as the favorite to hold on to their All-Star forward.

“I know that he has a process, and right now our focus, like Kawhi, like his is, is on his health,” Frank said. “He had major surgery. He tore his ACL. That's going to require a great deal of time and we want to support him in that.”

“… We'd like to bring Reggie back. We would like to bring Nico back. Serge is a free agent and we hope he opts in. We have other free agents as well. We will continue to go through it. We are hopeful that we can continue continuity and guys want to be here.”

Though Leonard’s injury disrupts their best-laid plan to bring back many of last season’s contributors and build off last season’s run to the franchise’s first conference final, it didn’t alter their internal timetable, or expectations.

The rookies will be brought into a franchise that expects “we’re still going to be very, very competitive, just like we have been in previous years,” Frank said.

“The goal is to be good for a long time, and in order to do that, you have to have a really good mix of guys at different stages in their career,” Frank said. “And we really take a great deal of pride that we have really good veterans, we have some young guys now that have shown that they are quality NBA rotation players with an upside to be even better and we just want … a continuous cycle of talented players that fit our DNA.”

Johnson, who declared for the draft after one season at Tennessee, said he modeled his game after Leonard. The homage is most evident in what he called his defensive focus.

“Whenever I first laced up my shoes, my parents always told me you give your all,” Johnson told The Times on Thursday. “You give your all on the offensive end so on the defensive end you need to do the same.”

Johnson already has a relationship with All-Star forward Paul George from a meeting in the lead-up to the draft, Johnson said. He played point guard in high school at times but Frank said the team views the 6-foot-5 Johnson as a wing. He must develop more polish on his outside shot and handle.

Preston was a no-star recruit who blogged about the NBA in high school, long before there was any reason to believe he would make the league as a player. He shot better than 41% on three-pointers last season at Ohio, but Frank said the Clippers believe his accuracy, and strength, can still improve.

“He has unbelievable vision, terrific pick-and-roll player,” Frank said. “Guys are really going to enjoy playing with him. Can make passes with either hand.”

The Clippers’ other free agents include backup center DeMarcus Cousins and forward Patrick Patterson. Amir Coffey, whose two-year, two-way contract is ending, will be a restricted free agent if the team issues him a qualifying offer. The team is believed to be leaning toward offering one.

Leonard’s injury was one of three, season-ending injuries suffered during the playoffs by key contributors, joining Ibaka (back) and starting center Ivica Zubac (knee). Coach Tyronn Lue’s on-the-fly lineup adjustments to them were a significant factor in their appearance in the franchise’s first conference final and showed “masterful in-game coaching,” Frank said.

“There are very few coaches who I say have the courage and smarts to make some of the different moves he made,” Frank said. “Really proud of our players. We identified different things going into the year in regards to chemistry and guys fitting together and guys pulling for each other, not being a front-running group, responding to adversity, and adapting throughout different circumstances, and I felt our guys really, really responded well.”

And in a matter of days, the Clippers will know how their top free-agent targets respond to their overtures.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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