Youth Movement Underway in Pacers' Frontcourt
He's a safe pick, start with that.
Comb through the data, videos and critiques surrounding UCLA's T.J. Leaf, and it doesn't seem possible he'll ever slip into the "bust" zone. His shooting touch, versatility, athleticism and basketball pedigree should make him a solid NBA player, at least.
The question for the Pacers, who took the 20-year-old Leaf with the 18th selection in Thursday's NBA draft, is whether he can rise beyond "solid" to the atmosphere of "steal," and that answer won't come for a few years.
The Pacers took another UCLA big man, 18-year-old Ike Anigbogu, with the 47th overall pick, and then sent cash to New Orleans to select point guard Edmond Sumner with the 52nd pick.
Leaf's dossier is free of blemishes, aside from concerns about his strength and quickness – which could diminish as he grows older. He's 6-foot-10, runs the floor well, has a variety of ways to score, rebounds aggressively, plays hard consistently, and has the basketball pedigree of a coach's son.
That coach, Brad Leaf, happens to be from Indianapolis. He played at Lawrence North High School, then at the University of Evansville, and then became a seventh-round draft pick of the Pacers in 1982. He didn't survive training camp, and played in Israel for 18 seasons before becoming a coach – his son's coach at Foothills Christian High School in El Cajon, Calif.
PHOTO GALLERY: Pacers Draft T.J. Leaf »
Leaf led UCLA in scoring last season with a 16.3-point scoring average, but was overshadowed by teammate Lonzo Ball, who was taken by the Lakers with the second overall pick on Thursday. Leaf hit 62 percent of his field goal attempts, including 47 percent of his 58 3-point shots in his only season at UCLA. He also averaged 8.2 rebounds, 2.4 assists, and 1.1 blocks.
He had 11 pre-draft workouts for NBA teams, and impressed the Pacers both in his on-court performance and post-practice interview.
"The kid was excited to be here and to be working out," Pacers coach Nate McMillan said. "These guys have gone through a number of workouts before coming to us, but he was ready to go. He had a really good workout. He had good energy, a good motor. When I had the opportunity to spend some time with him, we had a good conversation. Polite young man, humble, understands where he's going and what he needs to do. I think he's going to be a successful pro."
NBA draft picks are inevitably compared to veteran NBA players as part of the attempt to quantify them, and white players are inevitably compared to other white players. McMillan was asked if Leaf reminded him of his former teammate in Seattle, four-time all-star Tom Chambers. McMillan hedged on that, but later offered Nick Collison as a comparison.
The 6-10 Collison, drafted 12th by Seattle in 2003 when McMillan coached there, was still in the league last season. He's been a pro of the solid variety, never averaging in double figures but has provided steady production in Seattle and Oklahoma City, spending his entire career with the same franchise.
The Pacers will hope for more than that from Leaf, who at the very least is a superior 3-point threat and probably more athletic than Collison. He's regarded as a classic "spread four" who can play inside and out, one capable of complementing Myles Turner, who attended the draft in New York on Thursday and spoke with Leaf.
"I think I'll complement him really well with my playmaking abilities," Leaf said of Turner. "It gives us the ability to put five guys on the floor who can stretch it and shoot the three. That's something that teams have trouble guarding."
Pacers president Kevin Pritchard called Leaf a "new-age four" for his ability to play on the perimeter but still score at the rim.
"And he runs," Pritchard said. "He's a gazelle. He loves to run."
One more thing about Leaf, which takes on added importance given the recent news about Paul George. He has made it clear to all he's truly excited to be in Indiana, where many relatives and friends of his family still live.
"I couldn't be happier that it's Indiana," Leaf told reporters via telephone hookup.
That sentiment sounded better than ever to the Pacers, in light of Paul George's recent decision to seek a trade.
"As this unfolded, we talked with his agent quite a bit and his agent was adamant – I'm not saying this was a big part of it, but he was adamant about 'I want to be a Pacer,'" Pritchard said. "At the end of the day, does it make a little bit of difference when you make these decisions? Yeah, maybe today it did."
Like Leaf, Anigbogu is a 6-10 one-and-done player out of UCLA who runs the floor well, but the similarities end there.
Anigbogu weighs 252 pounds, 30 more than Leaf, and at this stage of his development is strictly a rim protector and inside scoring threat. He averaged just 4.7 points last season, in which he missed the first five games after having arthroscopic surgery to repair the meniscus cartilage on his right knee on Oct. 25.
PHOTO GALLERY: Pacers Draft Ike Anigbogu »
He was a highly-regarded recruit out of high school in Corona, Calif., but averaged just 13 minutes in 29 games for UCLA. He's regarded as a project, but one with the physical tools to make it in the NBA once he matures beyond his teenage years.
"We needed some physical toughness," Pritchard said. "When he got there, we were shocked. We were really shocked."
Pritchard said he expected Anigbogu to be selected from the mid-20s to early 30s in the draft. His knee injury likely scared off some teams. In fact, Anigbogu tweaked his knee in his pre-draft workout with the Pacers, his fourth, and shut it down at that point upon the advice of his agent.
Anigbogu said he doesn't have a long-term concern about his knee. Pritchard agrees, saying the Pacers' front office staff "became comfortable with the medicals."
"As he got closer (to the Pacers in the second round), we felt it was a perfect fit for us," Pritchard said. "Elite shot-blocker. Physical specimen. Tough. We needed some physical toughness and when he got there we were shocked. We were really shocked."
Sumner, a 6-6 point guard, entered the draft after three seasons at Xavier. He also comes with a knee issue, having suffered a season-ending injury on Jan. 29. He played in 21 games, averaging 15 points and five assists. He's said to have exceptional speed in the open court and the potential to become a standout perimeter defender because of his length and quickness.
PHOTO GALLERY: Pacers Acquire Edmond Sumner »
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2017 Draft Pick 18: TJ Leaf
The Indiana Pacers select TJ Leaf with the number 18 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft.
Draft Night 2017
The Indiana Pacers select TJ Leaf with the number 18 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft.
June 22, 2017 - TJ Leaf speaks with Pacers.com's Greg Rappaport at the Barclays Center after being drafted by Indiana with the 18th overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft.
June 23, 2017 - Pacers President of Basketball Operations addresses Paul George's future with the franchise and Indiana's picks in the 2017 NBA Draft.
May 23, 2017 - UCLA forward TJ Leaf spoke with Pacers.com following his pre-draft workout and talked about his ties to Indiana.
June 22, 2017 - Pacers head coach Nate McMillan speaks with Pacers.com's Wheat Hotchkiss after Indiana selected UCLA forward TJ Leaf with the 18th pick in the 2017 NBA Draft.
June 22, 2017 - After he was selected, Pacers first round draft pick TJ Leaf answered questions from the media during a conference call.
The Indiana Pacers select TJ Leaf with the 18th pick in the 2017 NBA draft and the NBATV crew breaks down his game.
June 22, 2017 - Coach Nate McMillan speaks to the media following Indiana's first-round draft pick of UCLA's TJ Leaf.