TJ Leaf 2018 Season Review

After wrapping up his rookie season in the NBA, Pacers forward TJ Leaf talked about the ups and downs of his first-year experience, and discussed the areas in which he wants to grow his game over the offseason.

TJ Leaf 2018 Player Review

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TJ Leaf 2018 Season Review

After wrapping up his rookie season in the NBA, Pacers forward TJ Leaf talked about the ups and downs of his first-year experience, and discussed the areas in which he wants to grow his game over the offseason.
May 8, 2018  |  02:02

TJ Leaf 2017-18 Season Highlights

Check out the top plays from Pacers forward TJ Leaf's 2017-18 season.
May 8, 2018  |  02:01

My Home Court: TJ Leaf

Growing up in California, TJ Leaf would spend his days competing -- often without much success -- against his older siblings. But through it all, the stiff competition made Leaf the player he is today.
Apr 8, 2018  |  01:52

Player Review 2018: TJ Leaf

by Mark Montieth
Pacers.com Writer
@MarkMontieth

Age: 21
Years Pro: 1
Status: Entering the second year of his rookie contract.
Key Stats: Played in 53 games for an average of 8.7 minutes. In that time, averaged 2.9 points and 1.5 rebounds.

It would be easy for anyone taking a passing glance at the Pacers' final stats to determine TJ Leaf was a bust, a first-round draft pick who couldn't even average three points a game, wasn't even in the rotation for the playoffs, didn't even get off the bench for 29 games in the regular season.

That would be a wildly premature evaluation, however.

Leaf has a lot going for him, starting with the fact he's 20 years old. When Reggie Miller was 20 years old, he was a junior at UCLA — a really good one, averaging 26 points a game, but still just a college underclassman. Leaf, who left UCLA after a promising freshman season to enter the NBA draft, had no shot at beating out the grown men for consistent playing time on a team headed for the playoffs.

When he got opportunity, though, he showed something. The first hint of promise came when he scored 18 points in 22 minutes in a preseason game at Cleveland. It was just a preseason game, but still a major step above college competition and meaningful for a 20-year-old rookie. It also inspired some of his teammates to take to social media.

Damien Wilkins tweeted, "TJ Leaf, ladies and gentlemen!" Myles Turner shared that comment, adding, "gon' b a problem!"

Leaf soon scored 17 points (on 7-of-11 shooting in 19 1/2 minutes) in a real game, the second of the season, against Portland. They weren't all garbage-time minutes, either. Myles Turner's absence had the ripple effect of opening minutes for Leaf, who played in all four quarters.

PHOTO GALLERY: TJ Leaf's 2017-18 Season in Photos »

That turned out to be his highest-scoring game of the season, but also provided a forecast. When he played enough to break a sweat and find a groove, he usually produced. In the eight games in which he played 19 or more minutes, he averaged 10.4 points on 56 percent shooting, from both the field and the 3-point line. That's not a manufactured stat; there just happened to be five games in which he played between 19 and 20 minutes.

Even when Leaf played like a rookie, he had the respect of his teammates. Following a scoreless 16 1/2 minute appearance against New York on Dec. 4, Al Jefferson walked across the locker room to give him a fist bump before exiting. Moments later, Darren Collison gave another before he headed out the door.

Most of Leaf's opportunities came the first half of the season. His second-best scoring output came against Chicago on Jan. 6, when he hit all six field goal attempts, including three 3-pointers, on his way to 15 points. He sat out 20 of the final 34 games but did have a last hurrah in the regular season finale, when most of the starters were rested.

Playing 21 1/2 minutes against Charlotte, he scored 13 points, hitting 6-of-12 shots.

Leaf also played three games for Fort Wayne in the G League in December, averaging 23.3 points in 32 minutes and hitting 54 percent of his 3-point shots.

To recap: He hit 47 percent of his 3-pointers as a freshman at UCLA, 54 percent in three games in the G League, and 56 percent in the eight games in which he played more than 19 minutes with the Pacers.

It's not hyperbole, then, to regard Leaf as a great shooter. Not a good one, but a great one, simply based on the numbers. Had he not missed all three 3-point attempts in the final game against Charlotte, he would have challenged Collison — the NBA's leading 3-point shooter — for the team lead, although he didn't have enough attempts (42) to qualify for the league rankings.

Leaf can be more than a guy standing in the corner waiting for a penetrate-and-kick pass to hoist up a shot. He can put the ball on the floor, shows sufficient agility around the basket, has the fundamentals of the coach's son that he is, and shows instincts that can't be coached.

His primary task will be to become stronger, if he is going to continue to be played as a "four" in the Pacers' lineup. It wasn't unusual for opponents to bully him, giving the ball to the player he was defending and backing him down for an easy shot.

One could argue he's better suited to play the "three," but perimeter defense will be a problem for a while as well. Stronger, quicker, whatever...he'll be 21 years old all the next regular season and has plenty of time to mature physically.

Leaf's limited opportunities led coach Nate McMillan to maintain modest expectations for him during the season. "This season for T.J. is to go out there and play and have some fun and try to learn," is how McMillan put it early in December. But even doing that, he managed to leave a positive impression.

"I like his potential," McMillan said at the postseason press conference. "His basketball IQ is very high.

"I think this is a very important summer for him. He has the length, he has the ability put the ball in the basket, put the ball on the floor. He's a legit spread four in this league. He'll get stronger. I like him. I was impressed with what I saw in those minutes he played."

Last season's stretch four, Thaddeus Young, holds the key to much of what the Pacers do in the offseason, and therefore the playing rotation for next season. Should he return for the final year on his contract, Leaf's opportunities could continue to be limited. Should Young not return, Leaf might have a chance to emerge from the pile and prove he's the four of the future.


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