Player Review 2020: TJ Leaf
Years Pro: 3
Status: Entering final season of his 4-year rookie contract.
Key Stats: Played in 28 games this season with one start. Averaged 3 points in 7.9 minutes per game. Shot 41.9 percent from the floor and grabbed an average of 2.5 rebounds per appearance.
Towards the end of the 2018-2019 NBA season, TJ Leaf showed promise, especially after a stellar 28-point performance during the Pacers' final regular-season game against the Atlanta Hawks. The offensive prowess he is remembered for at UCLA was starting to show.
But as the offseason roster shuffling occurred, Leaf found himself in a familiar place in the Pacers lineup during the 2019-20 season — on the bench and fighting for minutes. Even with head coach Nate McMillan's promise of a 10-man rotation, Leaf found himself struggling to find playing time past game 17 of the regular season.
Early in the season, Leaf was at times a part of the Pacers' bench rotation. The former UCLA standout played 10 minutes or more in eight of the Blue & Gold's first 13 regular-season games.
PHOTO GALLERY: TJ Leaf's 2019-20 Season in Photos »
He posted what turned out to be his best performance of the season — a 13-point, 15-rebound double-double against the Chicago Bulls — on Nov. 3. The 15 rebounds were a new career high for Leaf. In that game, he clawed for the ball on both ends of the court and came down with six offensive rebounds to lead everyone in that category.
But the only time he reached double digits in scoring again was a 12-point performance on Nov. 15 against the Houston Rockets. He sank five of his six field goal opportunities in the matchup.
Photo Credit: NBAE/Getty Images
After playing for over 21 minutes in the Bulls game, his playing time never reached above 16 minutes until the final regular-season game against the Miami Heat, where he posted six points, three rebounds, and a +10 rating in 18:01.
His eventual decrease in playing time was a product of McMillan's decision to juxtapose the starting five's halfcourt style of play with a run-and-gun bench. When Leaf wasn't stuck behind All-Star Domantas Sabonis at the power forward spot, he soon found himself battling for paint minutes with the likes of Goga Bitadze, Justin Holiday, and even Doug McDermott. For small lineups, McMillan favored McDermott for his off-ball screen speed and his 3-point sharpshooting.
And perhaps that was finally the key stat that influenced McMillan's decision about who to play off the Blue & Gold's deep bench. While Leaf's crafty skills close to the rim transferred over from UCLA to the NBA, his 3-point shooting has been falling off. He hit 47 percent of his attempts in his only season at UCLA. He hit 42.9 percent of his attempts in his rookie season. However, that average has now dropped to just 27.8 percent in his limited attempts this season.
And unfortunately for Leaf, the NBA has become heavily dependent on the 3-point shot. As decent and respectable his paint skills are, he will have to find his 3-point shot once again to earn more time in the Pacers' bench rotation. Perhaps he can transform into Indiana's version of Lauri Markkanen. He is still the third-youngest player on the Pacers roster, and maybe a contract year is just what the young power forward needs to kick it up a notch heading into the 2020-2021 season.