Clippers will be cautious with a recovering Kawhi Leonard

Fifteen months after Kawhi Leonard last played in an NBA game, the Clippers can see his return coming soon.

The NBA All-Star forward who underwent surgery in July 2021 to repair an injured anterior cruciate ligament has yet to play five-on-five basketball but has been cleared to do so during the preseason and “feels great,” team president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank said. He added Leonard’s recovery has been “very, very encouraging” — and that the team will continue to be cautious with his workload once he is back on the court for good.

Speaking at the team’s practice facility Thursday morning, Frank didn’t offer specifics about what Leonard’s availability will be like during training camp, which begins Tuesday in Las Vegas, saying that “we’re not going to get into predictions what he will do or he won’t do.”

The team’s first of four preseason games is Sept. 30 in Seattle. Yet Frank, amid praise of Leonard’s discipline during the rehabilitation process, said Leonard has played in controlled settings for a long time and is trending toward an on-court return.

“His plan is, look, he wants to participate in everything, and I think … organizationally, we’re going to be cautious. So it will be a step-by-step approach,” he said.

“He comes in at 7 a.m. and just from the time he steps into the building to the time he leaves, many times four or five hours later, it’s all purposeful work, whether it’s in the performance room, whether it’s on the court, whether it’s film study. You know, Kawhi is all about one thing, and so, you know, a lot of encouraging news. And also, again, as an organization, we know what the big picture is. We know what our goal is, and we will be very cautious and take a methodical approach.”

As with Leonard, the Clippers are playing what Frank termed the long game with a number of their key rotational players as they enter a season under championship expectations. Paul George, Leonard’s All-Star running mate who missed the majority of last season with a sprained ligament in his shooting elbow, is fully healthy, Frank said.

George, guards Reggie Jackson and John Wall, and forwards Marcus Morris Sr. and Nicolas Batum also are all in their 30s, and with a league-high 61 games before the All-Star break, the Clippers prioritized building roster depth this offseason to allow its players time to rest throughout the course of the season.

“We want our guys to be able to be at their best when their best is needed, which is, you know, April, May and June,” Frank said. “So to be able to give some of those heavy load carriers [rest] where they’re not overtaxed at that time, yet there’s enough continuity that there’s rhythm there.”