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Leonard relishes return to T&M, vies for Olympic spot

More than five years have passed since then-18-year-old Kawhi Leonard scored 16 points and grabbed 21 rebounds to lead San Diego State over UNLV for the 2010 Mountain West Tournament championship at the Thomas & Mack Center.

On Thursday, in his first game back to the T&M since his sophomore season with the Aztecs, Leonard had 14 points in Team USA White’s 134-128 win over USA Blue.

“It felt good to be back,” said the now 24-year-old Leonard, who won the 2014 NBA Finals Most Valuable Player award with the San Antonio Spurs. “A lot of good memories here.”

As one of 34 invitees to Team USA’s basketball showcase in Las Vegas this week, Leonard is fighting for 12 spots on next year’s Olympic squad for the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro. His competition includes NBA stars such as Stephen Curry, DeMarcus Cousins, John Wall, Kyrie Irving and Blake Griffin.

Given players from the 2008 and 2012 Olympic teams such as LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, James Harden, Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love, Dwight Howard and Chris Paul will have spots on the 2016 team accounted for, Leonard is essentially competing for three positions.

“It’s not going to be easy,” the often tight-lipped Leonard said. “I just have to keep doing what I do.”

Team USA general manager Jerry Colangelo offered a similar thought this week, but hinted the 6-foot-7-inch forward, who averaged 16.5 points, 7.2 rebounds and an NBA best 2.3 steals last season, might have a better shot than he thinks.

“Next year is not going to be just a team of scorers” Colangelo said. “We need guys who can play different roles and give us the strongest, most balanced team.”

“Kawhi is one of the best defenders in the league. He’s a great guy, he has the character we look for in players, and I think he has a legitimate shot at being part of our team.”

Team USA head coach Mike Krzyzewski echoed Colangelo’s sentiment.

“You have to consider Kawhi because he’s one of the best defenders, probably in the world,” Krzyzewski said.

After winning the NBA championship in 2014, Leonard declined an invitation to participate with Team USA in last year’s FIBA World Cup in Spain. While the World Cup team, featuring Curry, Cousins, Irving and other players in the running for next year’s Olympic squad, won the gold medal in Madrid, Leonard rested over the summer.

But while Colangelo has said he values players’ commitment to the national team, he said Leonard’s absence last year won’t be a deciding factor.

“We’re looking forward to this NBA season,” Colangelo said. “Let just see what happens.”

Contact Chris Kudialis at [email protected] or 702-383-0283. Find him on Twitter: @kudialisrj.


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