When Lonzo Ball heard the Pacers drafted T.J. Leaf, his face lit up. “That’s where he wanted to go!”
TJ Leaf was a Hoosier before he was even a Pacer, TJ’s parents are both Indiana natives. His father, Brad, was a star basketball player at Lawrence North in Indianapolis and played college ball at Evansville University where he met TJ’s mother. TJ was born in Israel where his father was playing professionally. Upon their return to the states, TJ’s mother returned to Evansville while he and his dad set up in San Diego County, California where Brad found a high school coaching gig. Raised and coached by his father, TJ eventually grew into a 6’10 five-star prospect.
But TJ and his father remained close to the Hoosier state, where all of their family remained. The Indiana Hoosiers were a finalist when TJ was cutting his list of college choices and his father pushed him to look hard at IU. “He’s probably just as excited as me about it. He grew up there always watching the games and wishing he could wear one of those uniforms. He’s edging me to go there, not really, but thats where he sees that I would fit the best right now. We’ll see.” When asked about his Indiana ties, TJ said, “That’s obviously a bonus. If I come here to play basketball, it would be kind of like I’m at home as well as really far away. So it’s kind of a plus”. But even in college TJ could not escape his Indiana ties. At UCLA as he found himself surrounded by players and staff that had Indiana ties, 8 in total.
I first watched TJ Leaf play his senior year in high school. On a Friday night, I made a short trip to the Army and Navy Academy on the coast of Carlsbad California to watch TJ’s Foothills Christian team play. At the time I knew nothing of his father or his Indiana ties, only that he was a blue chip prospect. If there were 100 total people packed into that comfortable, but small gym in Carlsbad, California- at least 5 of them were Hoosiers.
TJ put up 31 points in a win, but it was a fairly quiet 31 points. While nothing was extraordinarily flashy, TJ displayed everything of a great player. He racked up offensive boards, he dribbled the ball up as a transition point guard at times, he made several no look passes for assists, and he hit several 3 pointers. More impressive to me though, was that he embraced his size. He defended the rim, he had 10+ rebounds, and he felt very comfortable playing the post displaying face-up and back-to-the-basket post moves.
TJ finished his senior season averaging 28 points, 12 rebounds, and 5 assists per game, 2 steals, and 3 blocks per game. Leaf won a state championship in his junior year and finished as a McDonalds All-American and runner up for California’s Mr. Basketball.
But it wasn’t that night in the small Army-Navy Academy gym that I knew Leaf was a true star. It wasn’t until the UCLA – Kentucky game at Rupp Arena on March 24th, 2017 that I knew he was more than just a star. In a game headlined by Lonzo Ball, Bryce Alford, Malik Monk, De’Aaron Fox, and Isaiah Briscoe – it was TJ Leaf who caught my eye. TJ led UCLA to a victory with 17 points and 13 rebounds with an efficient 8 of 12 from the field.
TJ finished his freshman season at UCLA leading them in scoring with 16 points per game, 8 rebounds, and 2.5 assists, and 1 block per game. TJ was named first-team All-PAC-12 and was #3 in the Power 5 Conferences in field goal percentage at 62%.
In April of 2017, I first started to realize that it is possible that he could fall to the Pacers at pick 18. And the night before the draft, I was assured by the Pacer faithful that he could be a good fit.
Now some Pacers fans were vocal about not liking the pick. And to that I say, you must not know TJ’s game well enough. One Twitter poster even responded to me upset with the pick simply because he was “another white player”. To that I say, TJ is not just a fundamental gym rat. TJ can play above the rim. No need to worry about his “whiteness”.
Dear @pacers fans:
You're going to like T.J. Leaf.
The Pac-12 pic.twitter.com/tzxgSqEU5l
— Pac-12 Network (@Pac12Network) June 23, 2017
Lets keep this pick in context. The Pacers had the #18 draft pick. Take a look below at the history of #18 draft picks. Historically, you are lucky to get a starter in the NBA at pick 18. Last night the Pacers picked up a player that in many years (i.e. 2013) would have been an easy lottery pick.
At 6’10, TJ Leaf will play power forward for the Pacers allowing Myles Turner to move the 5 position. This pick signifies that the Pacers are serious about transitioning to a smaller, faster team that can get up and down in transition. Larry Bird pushed for this transition in previous years but was unable to do so due to Paul George’s reluctance to play the PF position.
With his offensive efficiency, the Pacers brought in another player (ala Myles Turner) who can score but does not need the ball in his hands to score. Like Myles Turner, TJ has a knack for being in the right spot at the right time. Whether its back cuts, alley-oops, transition buckets, spot up jump shots, or offensive tip-ins – TJ just finds a way. Having this ability in Turner and Leaf allows the Pacers to bring in a more ball heavy player at guard in the future which should allow chemistry to develop.
What do we have to look forward to?
- 11 rebounds per 40 minutes. 3 of them offensive.
- Under-rated passer, 3.2 assists per 40 minutes.
- Effective scorer: Led UCLA in scoring. Averaged 28 ppg in high school. Averaged 15 ppg for Team Israel.
- Efficient scorer: 62% at UCLA
- Versatile: While he prefers to score form inside, shot 46% from 3.
- Capable rim protector: Over 1 block per game in college and high school.
- Transition player: Leaf is one of the better big men in transition whether scoring, dribbling, or passing.
- Drive and dish: ability to drive from the 3pt line and dish.
How often can a team say they drafted a High IQ player that can play above the rim? TJ Leaf: more than just a gym rat.