Through their first three pre-draft workouts, the Pacers have brought in a lot of talented players. They have auditioned All-Americans and conference Player of the Year award winners. They have taken a close look at NCAA Tournament heroes. They’ve interviewed a number of players with local ties.
Several of those players could end up going in the first round of next month’s NBA Draft according to draft projections, but none of them are a lock to hear their name called before the second round.
On Tuesday, however, the Pacers worked out UCLA freshman forward T.J. Leaf, the first player Indiana has brought in that is a consensus first-round pick.
Leaf was part of Steve Alford’s heralded freshman recruiting class at UCLA, which also included All-American point guard Lonzo Ball and athletic center Ike Anigbogu, who worked out for the Pacers on Monday.
The Bruins had the top scoring offense in Division I last season, averaging 90.4 points per game, and Leaf was their leading scorer at 16.3 points per contest.
Like Ball and Anigbogu, Leaf elected to turn pro after just one season in Westwood. He interviewed with Pacers President of Basketball Operations Kevin Pritchard and other executives at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago two weeks ago, then worked out for the team at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Tuesday. As always, Pacers head coach Nate McMillan and the rest of his staff led the workout.
“Obviously they’re very successful,” Leaf said when asked about his impressions of the organization. “A playoff team basically every year. It’s a lot of fun just being around a winning organization, especially (with) history like this.
“It’s nice being able to meet the coaching staff, meet with the front office again, just get a good feel for them.”
Leaf would seemingly fill a position of need for the Pacers. Indiana got solid production from Thaddeus Young at the power forward position last season, but struggled to find depth behind him, shuffling more limited offensive players like Lavoy Allen, Rakeem Christmas, and Kevin Seraphin in and out of the backup role.
When Young injured his wrist in early February, the Pacers suffered significantly, dropping a season-high six consecutive contests.
Leaf’s game would seemingly make him an ideal fit into a backup power forward position next season, with the potential to grow into a starting role alongside center Myles Turner, the team’s rising star.
Leaf has good size for his position (he measured out at 6-9 3/4 at the combine) and a polished offensive game.
He was an extremely efficient scorer in college, converting 61.7 percent of his field goal attempts. The freshman demonstrated the ability “to score at three levels,” as he puts it, meaning he could post up on the block, utilize his face-up game in the mid-range, or knock down shots from beyond the 3-point arc. Leaf attempted 1.7 threes per game and knocked them down at an impressive 46.6 percent clip.
Scoring is just one element of Leaf’s game.
Though he admittedly needs to add size to his wiry frame, Leaf was an excellent rebounder in college, collecting 8.2 rebounds per game and demonstrating good instincts attacking the offensive glass. He is also an excellent ball handler for a player of his size, comfortable handling the ball in the half court and even initiating the break himself after a rebound, and a capable passer, as evidenced by his 2.4 assists per game at UCLA.
Perhaps the best evidence of Leaf’s all-around offensive game can be found in his performance in the Bruins’ win at top-ranked Kentucky on Dec. 3. The freshman tallied 17 points on 7-of-12 shooting (going 1-for-2 from 3-point range), collected 13 rebounds (four of them offensive), and dished out five assists.
It isn’t hard to envision a frontcourt of Leaf, 20, and Turner, 21, developing into a potent offensive attack. Leaf said he thinks that he could mesh well with the Pacers center, who averaged 14.5 points while shooting 51.1 percent from the field and 34.8 percent from 3-point range in his second NBA season.
“When you have Myles out there shooting threes as well, I think it gives you five guys that can stretch the floor,” Leaf said. “It puts a lot of pressure on the defense when there’s five guys that can stretch the floor. They really have to open up and can’t help as much, so it opens up those driving lanes.”
Leaf’s experience playing alongside Ball should also equip him well as he makes the transition to the NBA, where pace and space are the buzzwords for modern offenses.
“It was almost like we had a shorter shot clock at UCLA,” Leaf quipped about the Bruins’ high-octane offensive attack.
The biggest questions facing Leaf at this point are his strength and his ability on the defensive end. The bigger question for the Pacers might be if he is going to still be on the board when they go on the clock with the 18th overall pick.
Most mock drafts have Leaf going in the middle of the first round, anywhere from the tail end of the lottery to somewhere in the early 20’s. A few mock drafts, including ESPN.com’s Chad Ford and Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Wasserman have Leaf going to Indiana.
Leaf said he will be happy wherever he ends up going on draft night, but admitted that being drafted by the Pacers would carry some added significance.
His father, Brad, grew up in Indianapolis, attending Lawrence North and starring at the University of Evansville. The Pacers actually drafted Brad Leaf in the no-longer-existent seventh round in 1982. The elder Leaf never played in the NBA, but enjoyed a long professional career (T.J. was born in Tel Aviv when his father was playing in Israel) before relocating to California.
Leaf’s mother is also from the Hoosier State and many of his relatives still reside in Indiana, all of whom would be thrilled to see him join the Pacers.
“It would be awesome,” Leaf said. “I already have a lot of ties here. I was at dinner last night with some family friends. My grandma came up yesterday as well. I just have so much family here — all my family is in Evansville and Indianapolis. I have a ton of family here and my roots are from here, so it would mean a lot.”
Iowa’s Peter Jok (left) and Michigan’s Derrick Walton, Jr. (right) worked out for the Pacers on Tuesday.
Big Ten Standouts Jok, Walton Prepare for Jump to NBA
Two of the top players from the Big Ten were among the other participants in Tuesday’s workout, Iowa guard Peter Jok and Michigan point guard Derrick Walton, Jr. Both were four-year college players who enjoyed standout senior seasons, with Jok leading the conference in scoring and Walton winning Big Ten Tournament MVP honors.
Both players received invites to the combine, but their projected draft range is late second round to undrafted. Still, both have the credentials to make an NBA roster.
Jok gradually grew into a bigger role over his four seasons with the Hawkeyes. He initially played a limited role while recovering from knee surgery, but emerged as an elite scorer in his final two seasons on campus.
As a senior, Jok averaged 19.9 points per game, earning first team All-Big Ten honors and becoming just the fifth player in school history to win the conference scoring title.
The 6-6 guard’s calling card is his shooting. For his career, Jok had a .378 3-point percentage and .881 free throw percentage, setting a school record by knocking down 91.1 percent of his foul shots as a senior.
Although he is a proven talent on the offensive end, there are questions about Jok’s defensive abilities. At the combine, he said his focus was almost exclusively on demonstrating improvement on that end of the floor, something he echoed on Tuesday.
“I feel like I’m a pretty good offensive player and everybody knows I’m an offensive player — I can shoot with the best of them,” Jok said.
“But at the next level, I’ve got to play defense to stay on the court. That’s one thing that I’ve got to improve the most because I feel my offense translates to the next level really well.”
Offensively, Jok believes that his experience going up against Big Ten defenses helped prepare him for the physicality of the professional game.
“It’s a grind,” Jok said. “Every night, every game, it’s really physical. It’s kind of like the NBA. They really pushed me aggressively. Especially with me, they were double-teaming me, face-guarding me, and being really physical with me.”
The 23-year-old has taken one of the more incredible paths to the NBA. Jok was born in Sudan, but his father was killed in the civil war when he was just three years old. His family fled the country, eventually immigrating to the United States when Jok was nine. Though he was raised in Iowa, his family has remained connected to their native country and his mother has returned to Africa, where she serves in the South Sudan parliament.
“Going through the adversity really made me a better person and a better man off the court,” Jok said of his journey. “Coming from where I came from, you’ve got to earn every thing. It made me a hard worker.”
Walton, meanwhile, was a very good player for four years at Michigan, but it wasn’t until the latter half of his senior season that he really caught the eye of NBA scouts. Walton was one of the best players in the country in his final 21 college games, where he averaged 18.3 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 6.0 assists.
Walton was the catalyst in Michigan going from a bubble team entering the conference tournament to winning the tournament title. He had 29 points, five rebounds, and nine assists in a semifinal win over Minnesota then followed that up with 22 points, six boards, and seven assists in a victory over Wisconsin in the championship game.
The Wolverines then made a surprise run to the Sweet 16, winning two NCAA Tournament games at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, including an upset of second-seeded Louisville. Walton had 26 points, five rebounds, and 11 assists in a first round win over Oklahoma State and then converted a crucial layup in the final minute of the win over the Cardinals.
Walton finished his career as the only player in school history to accumulate 1,000 career points, 500 career rebounds, and 400 career assists. He is also an excellent shooter, converting 42.2 percent of his 3-point shots and 87.6 percent of his free throws as a senior.
The biggest concern for Walton at the NBA level is his size. He measured out at under 6-1 in shoes at the combine and there will naturally be concerns if he can compete with bigger, stronger athletes.
Still, several smaller guards have found success in the NBA as of late, most notably 5-9 Isaiah Thomas, who has made back-to-back All-Star teams and led the Celtics to the best record in the Eastern Conference this season. Another example is Indiana University star Yogi Ferrell, who went undrafted last summer but still managed to make an impact in his rookie season, appearing in 10 games for Brooklyn and then taking off after signing with Dallas midseason.
“There’s always room for any guy my size that plays with a lot of heart,” Walton said. “I think that’s the (case for) guys (that are successful in the NBA) at my size or similar or even smaller.
“I think size kind of goes out the window once you figure out how hard a guy is playing and how much heart he has.”
The Pacers already employ one of his former teammates. Glenn Robinson III’s last season at Michigan was Walton’s freshman year. Walton said that Robinson did not offer him any advice prior to Tuesday’s workout, but did call him on Monday evening and planned to meet up with him later in the day.
“That’s one of my big brothers playing at Michigan, showing me the ropes,” Walton said. “It’s always good to get to be in his hometown and get a chance to see him.”
Pictured (L-R): California’s Jabari Bird, Cincinnati’s Troy Caupain, and Arkansas’ Moses Kingsley.
Pacers Get Closer Look at Bird, Caupain, Kingsley
The last three players to attend Tuesday’s workout were California guard Jabari Bird, Cincinnati point guard Troy Caupain, and Arkansas forward Moses Kingsley. All three players spent four years in college and will likely go late in the second round or undrafted.
Bird, a 6-6 shooting guard, is a good athlete who averaged 14.3 points and 4.7 rebounds as a senior at Cal. A capable shooter, Bird shot 40.9 percent from 3-point range as a junior and then 36.5 percent in his final season on campus.
Injuries had an unfortunate impact on Bird’s college career. Foot injuries held him out of several games and put a damper on his athleticism when he did play in his first two seasons. Back spasms kept Bird from playing in the NCAA Tournament as a junior and then a concussion in the opening minute of a Pac-12 Tournament semifinal game ended his college career.
“I think going through those four years, having all those injuries, it actually helped me for the next level,” Bird said. “I know things aren’t going to always go my way and I know I’m going to bring mental toughness to a team wherever I go.”
When healthy, Bird showed flashes of a player that could become a valuable contributor at the next level, though he admittedly needs to add weight to his 197-pound frame.
Bird said two of his best performances came against Utah in the final month of his senior season.
He scored a career-high 26 points in a double-overtime win over the Utes on Feb. 2, 16 of those points coming in the final four minutes of regulation or overtime, including the game-winning dunk off an alley-oop in the closing seconds. Then in the conference tournament on March 9, Bird again scored 26 points to lift the Golden Bears to victory, converting a three-point play with 14 seconds left to seal the win.
“Watch that and you’ll see Jabari Bird as a complete basketball player,” Bird said.
“Somebody who’s going to compete on both ends, makes big plays down the stretch, and is a team leader.”
Caupain was a three-year starter at point guard for the Bearcats, averaging 10.5 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 4.4 assists as a senior.
The 6-4 guard thrived under head coach Mick Cronin, who also coached Pacers guard Lance Stephenson from 2009-10. Stephenson watched part of Tuesday’s workout and Caupain said Cronin often cited him as an example of the toughness necessary to thrive in Cincinnati’s system.
Purdue fans may have some not-so-fond memories of Caupain. In the first round of the 2015 NCAA Tournament, Caupain went coast-to-coast and converted a buzzer-beating runner to force overtime against the Boilermakers, a shot that made a full rotation around the rim before dropping through the net. Cincinnati eventually persevered in the extra period.
“That’s the first moment I got,” Caupain said. “I was a sophomore, first year starting as a PG. Going to the tournament and putting us into OT, giving us a chance to win, it’s something that I’ll always remember.”
Caupain’s biggest focus is on improving his outside shot. He converted just 32.5 percent of his 3-point attempts and 68.7 percent of his free throws as a senior. He said getting up shots has been the primary focus of his individual workouts and he is hoping that he displays a better stroke when he auditions for NBA teams.
Though four-year players are generally seen as having less upside compared to younger players in their draft class, Caupain thinks his time playing for Cronin prepared him for the next level.
“All four years I grew as a person and as a player (with) confidence and being able to win,” he said. “I’m all about winning, doing whatever it takes to win, and that’s what Cincinnati teaches.”
Kingsley was a late addition to Tuesday’s workout. The Pacers initially planned to have Wake Forest power forward John Collins, a likely first-round pick, in town to go against Leaf. But Collins had to reschedule his workout, forcing the team to find a replacement on short notice.
Kingsley, a 6-10 power forward, said he got a phone call around 6:00 PM on Monday evening, then immediately packed a bag and headed for the airport, where he caught a flight to Indianapolis a couple hours later. He arrived at his hotel room around midnight and then was at Bankers Life Fieldhouse for the workout on Tuesday morning.
Originally from Nigeria, Kingsley moved to Mississippi for his sophomore year of high school. He went to Huntington Prep in West Virginia for his senior season, where he played alongside future number one draft pick Andrew Wiggins.
Kingsley spent two years coming off the bench at Arkansas, backing up Bobby Portis, who was named the SEC’s Player of the Year in 2015.
After Portis turned pro, Kingsley moved into a starting role and put up solid numbers. He had a standout junior season, averaging 15.9 points, 9.3 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks per game with a .548 field goal percentage. His production dipped somewhat as a senior, but he still put up solid averages of 12.0 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 2.6 blocks.
A two-time All-SEC Defensive team selection, Kingsley’s role at the NBA level would primarily be as a rim protector who can run the floor and set screens, though he has shown some potential that he can add a consistent jump shot to his repertoire.
Kingsley went 7-for-16 from 3-point range as a senior and is focused on at least mastering the mid-range shot for the pro game.
“I feel like I can shoot the 17-18 foot shot,” Kingsley said. “I need to improve on that.”