2016-17 Season Stats:
64.7% from the field
45.3% from three
71.1% from the free-throw line
Weight: 225 pounds Height w/shoes: 6′10″. Wingspan: 6'11″. Max Vert: N/A
Pretend like you didn’t read the title of this article or the statistics at the top of this page. Make believe that you don’t know that I’m about to spend the next few hundred words talking about how good UCLA’s T.J. Leaf is. Imagine that you have never encountered the “compare anonymous underrated player X to anonymous star player Y” construction in a draft preview before. In fact, pretend that you’ve never even read a basketball article before.
Okay? Now, take a look at the per-game statistics of these two nameless Division 1 NCAA power forwards and tell me which you would rather draft:
Player A: 13.2 PPG, 9.5 TRB, 2.2 AST, .7 STL, 1.8 BLK, .664 FT%, .608 FG%. .000 3P%
Player B: 16.2 PPG, 8.3 TRB, 2.6 AST, .7 STL, 1.2 BLK, .711 FT%, .618 FG%, .453 3P%
You would probably take Player B, but it’s kind of a toss-up, right? Sure, Player A edges Player B in rebounds and blocks per game, but Player B is a slightly more efficient scorer, and, even better than that, an automatic 3-point shooter.
Okay, and what if I told you Player A had a silky jump shot that scouts guaranteed would translate immediately to the NBA game and that he had good range that could ultimately stretch well beyond the arc?
That makes it even tougher. Player A looks like he might have more traditional big skills in addition to his shooting and could have a lot of room for potential growth. He may be a better prospect than Player B.
And if I told you Player A was a 20-year-old junior and Player B a 19-year-old freshman?
That would change things some in favor of Player B. Now you have to wonder if Player B might have a much higher ceiling than Player A. At the same time, Player A has had a couple years in school to mature and discipline both himself and his game. He’s probably grown into his body more, and he’s been able to keep his game consistent in spite of the constant turnover that defines college rosters. He might be more of a sure thing than Player B, even if he lacks Player B’s upside.
What if I told you Player A was Al Horford in his final year at the University of Florida?
Well, now you have to take Player B, right? Horford didn’t start shooting threes until his 9th year in the NBA, and while his rebounding numbers might look OK on paper, he’s always been weak cleaning up the glass. Player B already feels comfortable stretching his shot out past the college arc, and players that shoot that well in college usually figure it out in the NBA. Player B’s rebounding numbers are so close to Horford’s that you have to figure that the worst you’re getting with Player B is a Horford-like rebounding liability who pulls down a handful of boards each game just because his position puts him close to the basket.
Al Horford is a great player who will improve your franchise for a decade, but he has no real chance to fundamentally alter your franchise’s trajectory. Player B looks on paper a lot like a young Horford, and his apparent combination of shooting, shot blocking, and playmaking makes him seem like the kind of player who just might have that franchise-changing potential.
If you’re taking Player B, you’re taking T.J. Leaf (act surprised). Of course, none of this is to say that Leaf is going to be a better player than Horford. It would be insane to suggest something like that based solely off a comparison of their college statistics. For a college athlete to become a multiple-time All-Star like Horford is incredibly rare; for Leaf to grow into even a facsimile of that kind of player would be an exceptional outcome for his professional career. It’s unlikely, but the potential is there. When you’re talking about the NBA draft, potential counts for a lot.
T.J. Leaf doesn’t get as much press attention as his talents probably merit. That makes sense when you consider the fact that he plays alongside projected top draft pick Lonzo Ball—even the Los Angeles spotlight isn’t quite big enough to fit much else besides Ball, Ball’s half-court pull-up shots, and Ball’s dad, LaVar Ball.
Still, take a look at where Leaf stands on his impressive UCLA roster: he leads the Bruins in points per game and field goal percentage, he is 2nd on the team in rebounds per game, 3rd in steals and blocks per game, 4th in assists per game, and 2nd in 3-point percentage if you only count players who have played in more than one game this season. All of this is to say that on a very good UCLA team, T.J. Leaf is . . . very, very good.
As impressive as the stats are, however, it’s what the stats can’t tell you that make T.J. Leaf a really interesting prospect. For all of his skill in putting the ball in the basket, his true greatest attributes can be seen in the work he does off the ball. Leaf is a tremendous cutter, especially for a player of his position. He has a high basketball IQ and knows how to exploit the tiny crevices that open up when a defense shifts. It’s not uncommon to see him hanging around the short corner on offense, waiting listlessly until, all of a sudden, he darts under the basket to receive a pass the defense never saw coming. Leaf's combination of size, shooting range and cutting ability make it easy to imagine NBA teams building hard-to-defend schemes around running him off screens for outside shots or back door cuts.
T.J. Leaf isn’t without his faults, of course. On offense, his most glaring weakness is his apparent discomfort with putting the ball on the floor. He’s a good passer when he catches the ball on the short roll, and when he feels confident enough to drive to the hoop, he’s shown an ability to throw accurate kick out passes to open shooters and moving cutters that could make him really special. Those drive-and-kick scenarios are too few and far between for Leaf, however. He’s a big-man that likes to operate on the perimeter, and if he’s going to have a chance at maximizing his potential in the NBA, he’ll have to get over his reticence to dribble from the arc into the heart of the defense.
T.J. Leaf’s defense is his biggest shortcoming. He seems lost on that end of the floor a lot of the time, often either losing his man in off-ball action or defending him so closely that he puts himself out of position to play help defense. Even so, Leaf provides a lot of reasons to believe that he can become a capable defender at the professional level. He’s a hustle player who really seems committed to trying to play defense, even if he isn’t all that good at it just yet, and he’s sneakily a far better athlete than his reputation paints him to be. Consistent effort and athleticism go a long way towards covering up a lack of natural defensive instinct, and both of those things could take Leaf far in the NBA.
Most mock draft boards right now have T.J. Leaf being taken somewhere towards the end of the first round. That Leaf is being projected as a late first round pick is more a reflection of the sheer depth of this draft class than it is of Leaf’s skill level or potential. In most years, he’d be a lottery pick, if not a high one. A strong tournament showing could upend his draft stock, and if UCLA manages to win it all, don’t be surprised if he ends up being taken in the first half of the first round.