Leaf Looking to Take Advantage of Opportunity
If Pacer coach Nate McMillan's analysis of TJ Leaf sounds familiar, it's no wonder. It stated during training camp a year ago and it's equally relevant this time around as Leaf seeks to gain a foothold in the playing rotation.
But while fans can be forgiven for eye-rolling skepticism over such optimistic viewpoints, there are further indications it's more warranted than ever.
Start with opportunity, which has been microscopic throughout most of Leaf's two seasons with the Pacers. Thad Young was the starting "four" the past two seasons and Domantas Sabonis filled in on occasion, particularly last season when he paired with Myles Turner more often. That left virtually nothing in the way of meaningful minutes for Leaf, and a badly sprained ankle in the season-opener didn't help.
Now, with Young gone via free agency to Chicago and Sabonis stepping into the starting lineup to fulfill the grand experiment of pairing with Turner in an intriguing but unproven frontcourt tandem, a job opening has been posted for a backup "big" forward. Leaf, who can fulfill the trendy role of "spread four," was running with the second unit in Saturday morning's opening training camp session.
Leaf is in an odd state of limbo as he enters his third NBA season. Many fans have expected more of the former first-round draft pick, but beating out Young and Sabonis for playing time was an unreasonable expectation. His season scoring averages of 2.9 and 3.9 don't jump off the page, but he has managed to impress when given time.
He averaged 11.8 points on 68 percent shooting in the 11 games in which he played 15 or more minutes last season. The grand finale of that set came in a 28-point, 10-rebound performance in the final regular season game in Atlanta. It was a riding-out-the-schedule affair against an inferior opponent, but still qualified as a legitimate NBA game against a team that utilized its starters. Leaf played 32 minutes and hit 12-of-19 field goal attempts, primarily showing off his knack for scoring around the basket.
It wasn't a prelude to a playoff opportunity – Leaf played only in the first of the four games against Boston – but it did qualify as a basis for optimism for this season. Not from Leaf, however, who insists he didn't need a reminder.
"I'm pretty confident," he says. "A lot of people don't know my game, but I'm pretty confident in it and what I can do out there."
Leaf, who turned 22 in April, draws further confidence from his off-season work on his body and his shot. He says his body fat has dropped from about 12 percent to eight.
"I feel a lot lighter on my feet; I feel a lot more athletic," he said. "I just feel a whole lot better – bouncier. And definitely stronger."
He also has worked to become more consistent with his 3-point shot, which mysteriously abandoned him last season. An outstanding perimeter shooter throughout his high school career, his lone season at UCLA and his rookie season with the Pacers, he hit just 26 percent of his 31 3-point attempts a year ago. He blames the small sample size, pointing out that hitting just a few more would have raised his percentage significantly, as well as lapsed form. He's gone back to basics, putting more arc on his shot.
Leaf probably has been the player most often cited as improved during the pre-training camp scrimmages, drawing unsolicited praise from the likes of Malcolm Brogdon. He hesitates to offer predictions for himself, but one can sense a higher degree of maturity. Last season, he talked often of "going out and having fun." Now he's talking more seriously of performing.
"It doesn't really matter what you do in the off-season; you have to do it in the regular season," he said. "I'm just going to go out and do what I do and whatever happens, happens. I think there's a good opportunity there and it's up to me to seize it.
"I'm just ready. Ready to take the jump and help the team win. I think I can do that at a high level now."
Victor Oladipo surprised some observers by how much he participated in the opening workout. He didn't play in the end-of-practice fullcourt scrimmages, settling for standing on the sideline and loudly cheering, he was involved in many of the earlier drills.
Sabonis said Oladipo participated in 80 percent of practice other than the "live" contact work.
"It looks like he never left," Sabonis said.
Oladipo will not accompany the team to India for its exhibition games against Sacramento next Tuesday, staying in Indianapolis to continue his rehabilitation process.
Former Pacer Roger Brown has been honored by Dayton University, where he played as a freshman before being banned from competition in the NCAA and NBA in the early Sixties.
The university has initiated the Roger Brown Residency in Social Justice, Writing and Sport to run from Nov. 5-7. Celebrated author and journalist Wil Haygood will conduct this session.
Brown was penalized for having a casual acquaintance with a noted gambler while a high school student in Brooklyn. He later filed a lawsuit against the NBA and received a settlement. He joined the Pacers franchise when it was established in the American Basketball Association in 1967. He was a member of all three ABA championship teams and was later inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
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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.
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