Pacers Veterans on TJ Leaf's Development

Jan. 14, 2019 - Pacers co-captains Victor Oladipo and Thaddeus Young discuss the development of second-year forward TJ Leaf, who recently was reinserted into Indiana's rotation.

TJ Leaf 190114

Scroll Video up Scroll Video down Scroll Video left Scroll Video right

Pacers Veterans on TJ Leaf's Development

Jan. 14, 2019 - Pacers co-captains Victor Oladipo and Thaddeus Young discuss the development of second-year forward TJ Leaf, who recently was reinserted into Indiana's rotation.
Jan 14, 2019  |  01:32

Practice: Pacers Focused on Protecting Paint

January 14, 2019 - After practice on Monday, Pacers forward Thaddeus Young and head coach Nate McMillan talked about the importance of protecting the paint.
Jan 14, 2019  |  01:22

Turner: "I Felt Good Today"

January 13, 2019 - Pacers forward Myles Turner, who has missed the last four games with a sore right shoulder, talked about practicing in full on Sunday and addressed his availability for Tuesday's game against Phoenix.
Jan 13, 2019  |  01:28

Leaf Gets Another Glimpse of Opportunity

by Mark Montieth
Pacers.com Writer
@MarkMontieth

Put on your rose-colored glasses, and you can spot a few positive developments to have come out of Myles Turner's four-game absence from the Pacers. TJ Leaf, for example.

The second-year forward - about whom it bears repeating is just 21 years old, for the sake of perspective – played something other than garbage minutes in the previous three games – 15.5 on average. That was long enough to remind everyone what the Pacers saw in him before making him a first-round draft pick in 2016 and offer a rebuttal to those who believe he doesn't belong in the NBA.

Leaf averaged 7.7 points while hitting 10-of-13 field goal attempts in those games. It was nothing spectacular, but enough to convince Coach Nate McMillan to keep Leaf in the rotation regardless of whether Turner returns for Tuesday's game against Phoenix at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

That's more significant than you might think. McMillan has always preferred a nine-man playing rotation. Stretching it to 10 reduces playing time for one or two players, which threatens their consistency and/or job satisfaction. But he believes taking minutes from Thaddeus Young and Bojan Bogdanovic is a good idea in these the dog days of the NBA season, and is equally confident about giving some of them to Leaf.

"I like it now," McMillan said, with emphasis on "now."

"How long we'll stick with this, I can't say."

McMillan, in fact, all but promises not to stick with a 10-man rotation for the rest of the season. Nor does he make any predictions how many minutes Leaf will get while he's in the rotation. And even when McMillan does employ a 10-man rotation, there's no guarantee Leaf always will be in it. Kyle O'Quinn and Aaron Holiday have proven themselves worthy of consideration, given matchups.

Still, this current opportunity for Leaf qualifies as a ray of sunshine in a season mostly spent laboring in the shadows. Leaf has played in just 22 of the Pacers' 42 games so far, averaging 7.7 minutes – one less than he averaged in the 53 games in which he played last season. He's usually performed well when given more than a few minutes of opportunity, but those have been sparse. Not because McMillan doesn't trust him, but because he's not as good an option at power forward as the three others who have played the position: Young, Domantas Sabonis and, in a smaller lineup, Bogdanovic.

"I know he can play; I just don't have minutes for him," McMillan said following Monday's practice at St. Vincent Center. "I'm confident in him. What he's doing on the floor doesn't surprise me. I just don't have those minutes."

Leaf once was regarded as a tweener between the power forward and small forward positions - too slow for a small forward, too weak for power forward. Now that he's improved his strength and learned more about defensive positioning, he's regarded strictly as a power forward.

Still, that creates challenges. If Leaf plays against Phoenix, for example, he could be matched up against another TJ, Warren. The Suns' fifth-year "power forward" averages 18.5 points and scored 25 against the Pacers earlier this season. He's two inches shorter than Leaf and quicker. Leaf would have to use his length to his own advantage, and be able to knock down perimeter shots. He believes he's gotten quicker since entering the league, but how much quicker remains to be seen.

Leaf's primary tweener status now is that he's not yet good enough to break into the Pacers' rotation on a permanent position, but is too good to be playing in the G League. He played three games for the Fort Wayne Mad Ants last season and averaged 23.3 points on 57 percent shooting (54 percent of 3-pointers) and 8.3 rebounds in 32.7 minutes.

He's had enough other eye-catching moments to inspire genuine optimism for his career. There was that 18-point fourth quarter in the preseason victory at Cleveland before last season. That 17-point outing in 19 1/2 minutes in his second regular season game last season. That 15-point game on 6-of-6 shooting in another 19 1/2-minute appearance against Chicago last January. The 11.7 points (on 57 percent shooting) and 7.7 rebounds he averaged in a team-high 30.1 minutes in this season's exhibition games.

He also shows talents other than the obvious one of shooting well.

TJ Leaf

Photo Credit: NBAE/Getty Images

"He has a really good feel for the game and he's long," McMillan says. "He's getting rebounds on both ends of the floor in the post. When he has the ball he makes good reads."

This season turned sour for Leaf 58 seconds into the season-opener, when he sprained an ankle. He didn't play in the next three games, and didn't score until the season's ninth game as he got back into shape. He's currently on the second-best three-game stretch of his career, after Games 2-4 last season.

He knows nothing is guaranteed for the rest of the season, that the coaches will do whatever they believe gives them the opportunity to win the next game, but feels better prepared than ever for a meaningful opportunity.

"I'm ready for it," he said. "It's not like I've played great or anything in my opinion, I'm just kind of playing basketball like I know how to play."

Leaf's primary mentor among his teammates is Young. They guard one another most of the time in practice scrimmages, and the 30-year-old Young is most qualified to offer advice. Young has helped Leaf with the X and Os of defense more than anything, because he sees nothing on offense that needs correction.

"I try not to mess with his game too much," Young said. "TJ's very, very talented offensively. You don't want him thinking too much on the offensive side of the basketball. Defensively, I just tell him to keep his body between guys and the basketball, know who he's closing out to, things like that. If it's a guy who's not known for being a 3-point shooter, close out short, make him put the ball on the floor If it's a guy who's known for making 3-pointers, make him put it on the floor and drive to his weak hand."

"He's getting better each and every day."

Leaf will need more consistent minutes to prove that, and those minutes might not come until next season. If the regular nine rotation players are all healthy, McMillan likely will go back to that at some point in the season, and almost certainly in the playoffs, when all rotations shrink.

Next season offers a greater opportunity for Leaf to establish himself. He'll be 22 then, still young, with three seasons of experience behind him. Given all the players the Pacers have in the final year of a contract – including Young and Bogdanovic – the roster could be significantly different then, which could remove roadblocks for Leaf.

The same can be said for Holiday and some of the players who are playing mostly in Fort Wayne, such as second-round draft picks Edmond Sumner, Alize Johnson, and Ike Anigbogu.

"They're young, and right now there's not a spot," McMillan said. "The big thing for those guys is next year. But if you come back next year in that same role, it might really be an issue."

Leaf claims not to be concerned about next season. He has an opportunity now, no matter how short-lived it might be. If it goes away, he's still in a prime position to learn and improve. Young and McMillan, meanwhile, are confident in his future, both believing he'll be at least a rotational player in the NBA for seasons to come.

"You can never tell what a guy's going to pan out to be," Young said. "Usually that happens in the fourth or fifth year in the league. But he's going to play in this league for a long time and he's going to be very good."


Have a question for Mark? Want it to be on Pacers.com? Email him at askmontieth@gmail.com and you could be featured in his next mailbag.

Mark Montieth's book on the formation and groundbreaking seasons of the Pacers, "Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis," is available in bookstores throughout Indiana and on Amazon.com.

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Indiana Pacers. All opinions expressed by Mark Montieth are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Indiana Pacers, their partners, or sponsors.

NEXT UP:

  • Facebook
  • Twitter