Leaf to Start Preseason Opener

Oct. 3, 2018 - Pacers second-year forward TJ Leaf discusses the opportunity he will have on Thursday, when he starts Indiana's preseason opener in Houston in place of the injured Thaddeus Young.

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Leaf to Start Preseason Opener

Oct. 3, 2018 - Pacers second-year forward TJ Leaf discusses the opportunity he will have on Thursday, when he starts Indiana's preseason opener in Houston in place of the injured Thaddeus Young.
Oct 3, 2018  |  02:42

Pacers Viewing Road Trip as an Opportunity

October 3, 2018 - With a four-game road swing serving as the Pacers' preseason, Head Coach Nate McMillan and guards Darren Collison and Victor Oladipo explained how the team can use the trip to their advantage.
Oct 3, 2018  |  02:28

Blue-and-Gold Breakdown: TJ Leaf Discusses an Important Preseason Ahead

October 3, 2018 - On the 2018-2019 season premiere of the Blue and Gold Breakdown, Pat Boylan sits down with TJ leaf to discuss what promises to be an important preseason ahead for the Pacers second year forward.
Oct 3, 2018  |  04:30

Preseason Brings Serious Opportunity for Leaf

by Mark Montieth
Pacers.com Writer

For most of them, it will be one of those "just seeing where we are" experiences, the first preseason game in a season they expect to conclude with meaningful playoff games.

For TJ Leaf, it's much more than that. While it would be a gross exaggeration to call it the opportunity of a lifetime when he makes a start for the Pacers when they play at Houston on Thursday, it's at least a significant chance to establish himself as someone coach Nate McMillan will trust to contribute amid a congested group of established players once the regular season begins.

For Leaf, the regular season already has started. That's how he views it, anyway. Coming off a rookie season in which he played in 52 games for an average of 8.7 minutes, he's still in a prove-it mode. The upcoming road trip, in which the Pacers play four games in seven days, provides him a great opportunity to do that because, thanks to Thaddeus Young's foot injury, he'll be playing with the starters. Equally important, he'll be playing against starters, too.

Leaf isn't a rookie, but at 21 years old and a would-be college junior if he hadn't entered the NBA Draft after his freshman season at UCLA, he still qualifies as a "young guy." He still comes across as a fresh-faced, innocent kid, full of hope and wonder. During his conversation with reporters on Wednesday, he brought up the word "fun" eight times in the first 50 seconds in response to general questions.

"It's going to be fun playing with all these guys who have been there and done that," he said. "I'm just going to go out there and compete and play my role. It's going to be fun."

Fun, but also serious business for Leaf. He'll likely guard Carmelo Anthony in Houston, and will see plenty of action against other proven players the rest of the trip in Memphis, Cleveland, and Chicago. It will be an opportunity to erase his uneven Summer League performance and show he's worthy of the first-round draft pick the Pacers invested in him a year ago.

He did that early last season, briefly exciting fans with a couple of scoring outbursts. He scored 18 points in the fourth quarter of a preseason game in Cleveland while hitting all four 3-pointers, and then scored 17 points in 18 1/2 minutes against Portland in the second regular season game. They weren't garbage time minutes, either. He played in each quarter and scored seven points in the first three minutes of the second period.

Leaf's playing time last season was mostly dependent on having enough injured frontline teammates to open a place for him in the playing rotation. He faces a similar situation this season. McMillan calls him the backup to Young at the "four" position, but Domantas Sabonis (when he plays with starting center Myles Turner) will be ahead of him in the rotation. So will other players, when the Pacers go with a smaller lineup. Although Leaf was wearing a blue jersey along with the other starters in practice on Wednesday, there's no guarantee he won't be running with the yellow jerseys of the third unit after Young returns.

Preseason performances are sometimes indicative of what lies ahead, but sometimes not. Last year, for example, Darren Collison hit 60 percent of his 3-pointers in the exhibition games and wound up leading the NBA in 3-point percentage. Bojan Bogdanovic, meanwhile, hit just 13 percent of his 3-pointers in the preseason but hit 40 percent in the regular season.

Leaf's preseason performance will be judged mostly by what he can do defensively. He's a proven shooter, having hit 47 percent of his 3-pointers in his only season at UCLA, 62.5 percent in the preseason a year ago, and 43 percent in the regular season. It's the rest of his game that's up for debate, starting with his defense.

He says he's improved there and in all other areas because he's more comfortable, more knowledgeable and in better physical condition that a year ago.

"It's really night and day," he said. "Mentally physically, I'm extremely confident now. Not that I wasn't last year, but it's just different this year. I'm so much more comfortable making plays. I don't have to think as much, I just have to play basketball like I know how to play it."

TJ Leaf

Leaf averaged 12.5 points and 5.5 rebounds during the Las Vegas Summer League (Photo: Getty Images/NBAE)

Leaf cites Young and Collison as his primary mentors. Young is the 30-year-old veteran who starts ahead of him and Collison is the 31-year-old point guard accustomed to directing traffic. Collison, who says Leaf is "going to be a very good player," has tried to pass on the things he would have liked to have heard from a veteran player going into his second NBA season — which happened to be his first with the Pacers, in 2010.

He talks to Leaf about being in the right place defensively, about being more aggressive on the offensive end, and about having a stronger belief in himself.

"I believe in him a lot," Collison said. "I'm actually hard on him because I believe in him that much.

"When you're so young, so many things are coming at you. It's hard to focus on one thing and get better at that. That's what I try to instill in TJ. Just work on your confidence. Every day, when you come in the gym, feel that you're one of the better players in this gym.

"He was our best player in practice today. He's been working to improve his game and today we got a chance to see it."

Victor Oladipo also brought up confidence as an issue for Leaf.

"We need him to go out there and play his game, be confident in his game," Oladipo said. "Just go out there and play. Not worry about mistakes. Not worry about trying to please everybody. Just go out there and play hard."

Oladipo is five seasons into his NBA career, and is coming off a decorated season in which he was voted an NBA All-Star, the league's Most Improved Player and a first-team All-Defense selection. But he hasn't forgotten the difficulty of adjusting to the NBA game. Oladipo had the relative advantage of playing three seasons at Indiana University, but had to make a switch from shooting guard to point guard as a rookie in Orlando.

"I had to play a whole different position," he said. "I didn't worry about making mistakes, I just didn't know what to do. Period. I was just out there with my head cut off, running around."

Oladipo is exaggerating. He had a solid rookie season, particularly after the All-Star break, but the point is that young players require patience — particularly those who come out after their freshman season and receive limited opportunities as a rookie. That doesn't mean lessons aren't being taught, however.

"I learned a lot from that situation," Oladipo said. "I think playing the point actually helped me in the long run, to be able to put the ball on the floor and make decisions, make passes that I might not have been able to make if I had stayed at the two. Everything happens for a reason. I think it will help TJ in the long run."

The long run is still ahead of Leaf. The upcoming week, however, presents a chance for him to take a stride forward. While the games won't count in the standings they'll count meaningfully in his career. He'll play with starters, some of whom are pledging to try to make him look good by encouraging him and trying to get him the ball in the right places.

He plans to respond accordingly.

"I'm not a guy who's going to be timid," he said. "If I'm open I'm going to be aggressive. I don't care who I'm playing with, I'm going to play my game."

Now more than ever, he can begin to show just what that is.

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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