Paris Olympics

Kawhi Leonard, Joel Embiid brush aside injury concerns, all-in for 2024 Olympics

Despite recent injuries, the 2 superstars didn't hesitate to join Team USA for a 'dream' opportunity to represent their country.

USAB Team talks about the chemistry so far in practice

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UPDATE: Kawhi Leonard withdraws from Team USA due to injury

LAS VEGAS — The goal is to reach the Olympic medal platform by strutting, not limping. With that in mind, there’s the need to address the twin elephants in the Team USA room: Kawhi Leonard and Joel Embiid.

As the American men wrapped a four-day camp here Tuesday, the most significant goal was reached — Embiid and especially Kawhi, who couldn’t finish yet another NBA season because of injury, showed no physical issues or concerns.

This was a matter of high importance, not only for Team USA but obviously the Sixers and Clippers, given the fragility of those two players. In fact, Team USA officials privately expressed concern last month whether Kawhi, specifically, might be an injury scratch altogether or ask for restrictions.

As for any restrictions: That was non-negotiable for either player, according to those team officials. It was either all-in, or the search for replacement(s) would hastily begin.

The good news as Team USA prepares for Wednesday’s exhibition with Canada is there’s no news. Both have been full participants in practices and scrimmages (unlike Kevin Durant, out with a mild calf strain). Neither the players, or their teams, have asked coach Steve Kerr to be placed on a minutes leash.

Anyway, the players themselves badly wanted to be here; this is the first Olympic experience for Kawhi and Embiid, both highly decorated franchise players in search of expanding their own legacies.

Embiid: “I’ve dreamed of this moment, being part of the Olympics, ever since I was a kid, watching it growing up.”

Kawhi: “I always wanted to be with other talented players, to learn from them, win with them. Been my dream.”

Kawhi was thrilled and honored when chosen for 2024 — injuries prevented him from previous Team USA selections — and his 33-year-old body initially cooperated once he accepted the invite last spring. He played 68 games last season, most since 2016-17, and averaged 34 minutes. The Clippers, who wanted to place a heavier emphasis on the regular season compared to years past, were mainly hands-off; he even played back-to-backs.

However, two games into the postseason, he was done, plagued by swelling in his repaired right knee. It was the fourth straight postseason he ended by pulling up lame.

So he has a history, then. And tacking on a month of summer practices and games seemingly would be problematic for someone with that history.

But Kawhi said, with some caution, he is refreshed and as rejuvenated as he can be:

“I’m ready to go. Everything’s been good so far. I’m playing now so I’m happy. Hopefully it stays that way.”

He did admit to a skittish summer process where everything had to go right physically, though, and there was no guarantee of his Team USA presence. He underwent daily treatment (though no surgery) leading up to camp. He responded “yeah” when asked if he had initial doubts about playing in the Games following his latest injury.

“But I took the time,” he said. “I was able to turn around over the last two weeks.”

Kawhi seems at peace, to a degree, about his body and the constant struggles with injuries and rehabbing from them.

“I can’t lay out the perfect script for me,” he said. “Last year I tried to play as much as possible and felt great, and then after a certain period of time I couldn’t go. I don’t want to be in the situation where I (find myself) in but I have to take it for what it is.

“I motivate a lot of people (with injuries) so I got to keep doing what I’m doing. I might be the most known for injuries, so just for me to be able to keep going is going to motivate the next guy. So I’ll keep going until I can’t. Just going to keep it steady.”

There were no ultimatums given by the Clippers regarding his status for Team USA; on the contrary, actually.

“Everything felt good for him on the lead-up (to USA camp),” said Ty Lue, an assistant coach on Team USA and also Clippers coach. “He’s moving good right now so I’m just happy that he’s feeling pretty good. Hopefully he’ll keep moving along and feel 100% when the season starts.”

Embiid’s injury history isn’t as deep but costly and significant as well. Last season he played just 39 games because of knee issues, ruining what shaped up as a historic effort — he averaged more points (34.7) than minutes played during that stretch yet was ineligible for postseason awards.

In the playoffs, the former Kia MVP labored, a big man placing pressure on that knee and doing it in the intensity of the postseason. Nonetheless, he was tremendous against the Knicks — he had a 50-point performance in that first-round series — while playing 41 minutes a night.

Therefore, like it did with Kawhi, the possibility of bypassing the Olympics in favor of preservation was raised by Embiid — for about a minute.

“It came up,” he said, “but I never worry about injuries because the moment I do I feel I’m not going to be the same. I think if something happens then it was meant to happen, so I just go with the flow.

“For me, being part of the Olympics was always the goal. It was an opportunity and a chance I couldn’t pass up. And I don’t think there is a big risk.”

This is important for the American men, because size was a big issue last year during the World Cup; only Bam Adebayo offered much in the middle in terms of proven talent. Embiid said he’s out to change that in Paris.

“As everybody knows it’s hard to bully me,” he said. “We got enough size. And we got the shooters and talent everywhere. I’ll be excited to get the ball in the post, because when I usually play I see double teams every time I touch the ball. So it’ll be fun to see single coverage.”

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on X.

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