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Los Angeles Clippers star Kawhi Leonard made his return to the court Thursday night, playing 24 minutes in the team's 96-91 win over the Detroit Pistons. He finished with just six points on 2-of-8 shooting, but added five rebounds, five assists and four steals and was a team-best plus-26. Notably, he was in the starting lineup for this game, unlike his first two outings of the season, where he came off the bench. 

After missing all of last season while recovering from a torn ACL suffered in the 2021 playoffs, Leonard played in two of the Clippers' first three games before hitting the sideline again. The team referred to his absence as "right knee injury management," and it's still unclear exactly why he was unable to play in the last 12 games. To no one's surprise, Leonard declined to go into detail following his return. 

"Just rehabbing, getting ready," Leonard said. "I'm not going to explain it because I'm not a doctor, and nobody in here is one. So just getting back, ready to get on the floor. ... Like I said before, at the start of the season, it's going to be a long journey. ACL recovery isn't just one year. Everybody thinks that, but it's a two-year process, so I know that and I'm going to keep going and going through the process."

It is true that the ACL recovery process is longer than just the season the player misses. Mentally you need to learn to trust your body again, and physically you need to regain a rhythm and feel for the game. However, you would hope that process would play out on the court, like it has for the Denver Nuggets' Jamal Murray, who was on the same timeline as Leonard.

Leonard's setback and the murkiness around the situation, combined with his inability to stay on the court in recent seasons raised serious concerns about the Clippers' prospects this season. They can only reach their full potential as a title contender if he's healthy for the majority of the season and come playoff time, and the past few weeks have made it much harder to believe in that outcome. 

The Clippers' next game is on Saturday at home against the San Antonio Spurs, Leonard's original team. His status for that game is unclear.