Wt: 220 pounds
2016-17 Stats: 16.3 points, 8.2 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.1 blocks
HOW HE OPERATES
With star teammate Lonzo Ball soaking up all of the UCLA headlines – and rightfully so – not many could tell you that the leading scorer on the nation’s second-highest scoring team was Leaf. In fact, Leaf was also UCLA’s second-leading rebounder and third in blocks and the Bruins, as a team, were among the nation’s best in both categories. Leaf earned First Team All-Pac 12 honors as a result. He’ll take that body of work into the NBA as one of the most underrated athletes in the draft.
Don’t be surprised to see Leaf rise as the NBA Draft approaches, simply because he has at least three things he can do to a high level: score, rebound and block shots. And Leaf has good athleticism, constantly dunking attempts around the rim, which included catching lob passes. Leaf is a polished offensive player given his youth (20 years old). He picked out the right type of shot most of the time in whatever situation he found himself in. And there wasn’t a type of shot he couldn’t make in half court or in transition, and Leaf ran the court well going from defense to offense. He wasn’t a volume 3-point shooter, taking just 1.7 per game, but did make 46 percent from the arc during the season. So, it is a shot he can hit and is comfortable taking. Leaf was not strong in sealing off defenders on post-ups, but once he got the ball not only was he good around the rim but he was physical in getting there. He initiated the contact to get space and finished from there. Leaf punished smaller defenders caught on him in switches. He scored over bigger ones in the post, too, including first-round talents like Arizona’s Lauri Markkanen, California’s Ivan Rabb and Michigan’s D.J. Wilson. Leaf was patient around the rim, but could be forced into traveling violations when head faking.
Defensively, Leaf was an opportunistic shot-blocker. If the offensive player got into his body trying to finish over him, Leaf swatted those attempts away far more than he didn’t. He was also good in blocking shots from help side, but he doesn’t profile as a traditional rim protector. Overall, his feet could be more active; Leaf’s defensive stance was a bit upright and on his toes, which left him susceptible to blow-by drives. If Leaf ends up playing small forward, he’ll have to tighten down his defense against a group of players that are generally quick and strong. There is no doubt he can come right into the NBA and be successful in guarding stretch fours. Leaf gets a good hand up in contesting shots.
HIS BEST FIT
T.J. Leaf’s future is likely as a starting small forward, or power forward, so a team that has a real need to fill one of those spots with a capable scorer, rebounder and defender is ideal. Leaf, of course, needs time to grow into the role, but he’s proven to be a quick study and has a chance to pay dividends sooner than later.