Pacers Keeping Heat on Teams, Leaf Returns to Rotation

Dec. 5, 2017 - After practice on Tuesday, Pacers forward Thaddeus Young talked about putting teams away once Indiana gets a lead. Pacers head coach Nate McMillan explained what he's looking to see from rookie TJ Leaf's return to the rotation.

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Pacers Keeping Heat on Teams, Leaf Returns to Rotation

Dec. 5, 2017 - After practice on Tuesday, Pacers forward Thaddeus Young talked about putting teams away once Indiana gets a lead. Pacers head coach Nate McMillan explained what he's looking to see from rookie TJ Leaf's return to the rotation.
Dec 5, 2017  |  01:47

Leaf Rejoins Rotation with Focus on Improvement

by Mark Montieth Writer

It's too soon to know what kind of NBA player TJ Leaf will become, and whether the Pacers' decision to invest the 18th overall pick in this year's draft on him was a wise one.

What we know for sure is that Leaf has the support of his teammates as he works his way through the inevitable inconsistencies of his rookie season. Some nights he plays a lot, some nights he plays a little, some nights he doesn't play at all. Some nights he plays well, some nights he doesn't.

But every night is a learning experience. And the educational opportunities are about to increase.

"This season for TJ is to go out there and play and have some fun and try to learn," Pacers coach Nate McMillan said following Monday's victory over New York at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

Leaf played 16 ½ minutes against the Knicks, his first double-figure appearance since the Pacers' lopsided loss to Houston on Nov. 12. The rust was evident, as he missed all five field goal attempts, but he's built up enough goodwill among his teammates to merit their support.

Al Jefferson walked across the locker room to give Leaf a fist bump before exiting. Moments later, Darren Collison gave another before heading home. Back in the preseason, when he scored 18 points in 22 minutes at Cleveland, Damien Wilkins tweeted, "TJ Leaf, ladies and gentlemen!" Myles Turner quote-tweeted that comment, adding, "gon' b a problem!"

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Leaf's biggest problem at the moment is playing time, and that's not really a problem. Although he had shown flashes of excellence early in the season, such as scoring 17 points in 19 ½ minutes in the second game against Portland, and 11 points at Miami two games later, he understands how things tend to go for 20-year-old rookies who played one season of college basketball.

"We were really playing well, so of course you don't want to mess that up," he said. "That's the NBA. It's always next man up. Some games you're going to get the call, some games you're not. Especially being a rookie. I just try to stay ready. Tonight wasn't my night, but we had a good team win."

That's a mouthful of clichés, but with Leaf you trust his sincerity. That's why the fist-bumping veterans among his teammates have remained in his corner, and why he's about to get another chance to be a problem for opponents.

McMillan said Monday he's going back to a nine-man rotation, which means more minutes for Leaf. It's a dilemma for the coach, because his best chance of winning each game is to play his more established players – especially Domantas Sabonis, who often plays the same position as Leaf – as many minutes as possible.

The short-term fix, however, created a long-term problem: fatigue.

"I felt like I was putting a lot of minutes on eight guys," McMillan said. "I have to get a nine-man rotation.

"I just felt I needed to go back to a nine-man rotation and get TJ at least, five, 10 or 15 minutes. If I continued to play an eight-man rotation, by February we would be tired. The thing is to get him some minutes and let him play. He's going to make some mistakes out there - he has to learn - but just let him play and don't put any pressure on him and let him grow with us."

Most of Leaf's growth needs to come on defense. Even with sporadic playing time, he's hitting 46 percent of his field goal attempts, including 45.5 percent of his 3-pointers. Defensively, however, he's having to guard stronger players near the basket and quicker players away from it.

It's going to take time to get that worked out. Not only the physical part of it, but the intellectual side of knowing where to be and being able to tell others what to do from the back line of the defense.

"I'm just trying to learn the right positioning," he said. "Defensively, it's a different game. Reading the keys, things like that, I'm trying to learn. I'm just trying to learn all of it."

Meanwhile, he lifts weights every day. It might not be noticeable to the casual observer, but those close to him see it, and he feels it.

"Oh, man. Night and day," he said, when asked how much stronger he is than when he was drafted. "You can't always see it, but I feel so much stronger. I'm playing these guys who were two or three times stronger, and I'm starting to feel stronger. I'm definitely getting there."

Leaf's primary mentor in the locker room is Thaddeus Young, who can relate to his challenges. Young entered the NBA at 19 years old, a year younger than Leaf, and was an equally skinny forward trying to learn on the fly. Young also had played one season of college basketball (at Georgia Tech) and came off the bench as a rookie for Philadelphia, often very briefly. At the end of the season, he was starting for the 76ers in the playoffs.

"The biggest thing right now is to continue to be in the weight room and get stronger. A lot of guys are going at him as soon as he checks into the game and he just doesn't understand right now. But for the most part, offensively, he knows how to get his open shot, he knows where to be on the court. it's just defensively things move a little too fast for him. When he's out there on the court I try to slow things down for him and tell him, your first call is what the guards have to listen to. If you do anything out there, just continue to communicate with those guys. If you don't communicate, it's bad for everybody. He's beginning to understand that.

"The biggest thing is staying patient. You go through obstacles coming into the league. Some rookies start right away and get lots of playing time, some it takes years or it takes months. He just has to be ready for his opportunity."

Which is coming around again.

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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.

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