First-Round Candidate: TJ Leaf

TJ Leaf, Forward/UCLA
Josh Lefkowitz/NBAE/Getty Images Sport
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

ID CARD: 6-foot-9¾ power forward, UCLA, freshman, 20 years old

DRAFT RANGE: Ranked 26th by; 17th by; sixth among power forwards by

SCOUTS LOVE: With a premium on shooting, Leaf is going to get long looks from teams outside the top 10 for his ability to shoot and to score. He led UCLA in scoring and rebounding as a freshman. Leaf shot 62 percent overall and 47 percent from the 3-point line, though only 16 percent of his field-goal attempts came from the arc. Leaf doesn’t immediately flash as an explosive athlete, but you don’t have to watch him for long to see that he has superb body control, footwork and hand-eye coordination that calls to mind ex-Piston Jonas Jerebko.

SCOUTS WONDER: Like Jerebko, finding a home on defense will be Leaf’s particular challenge. Guarding small forwards would seem out of the question, at least initially, and Leaf likely would be physically overwhelmed by a healthy percentage of power forwards. While Leaf demonstrated tremendous scoring versatility at UCLA, will he be able to score inside with the same efficiency against more athletic and bigger NBA interior defenders – and, if not, can he become a more prolific 3-point shooter?

NUMBER TO NOTE: 6-11. That’s Leaf’s wing span, on the low end relative to his height and something that will leave NBA personnel evaluators a little more uncertain about Leaf’s defensive upside.

MONEY QUOTE: “I’m able to score on three levels, which a lot of bigs are not able to do. I think I can do it consistently, as well, and I think that’s becoming a premium now.” – Leaf at the NBA draft combine in Chicago on May 11

PISTONS FIT: The biggest obstacle to be cleared for Leaf to draw strong consideration from the Pistons is the fact that they drafted a somewhat similar player a year ago in Henry Ellenson. Ellenson is a little longer than Leaf – he measured 6-foot-11½ with a 7-foot-2 ¼ wing span at last year’s combine – and has that much more positional versatility with Stan Van Gundy’s expectation that Ellenson, like Jon Leuer, can give the Pistons minutes at center in certain matchups. Van Gundy loves skilled big men, but they’d really have to fall hard for Leaf to draft him given the overlap with Ellenson.

BOTTOM LINE: Leaf looks like a throwback to John Wooden’s UCLA of the ’70s. (David Meyers, anyone?) He’ll have his defensive challenges early – welcome to the NBA, rookie – but his grounding in fundamentals and his basketball IQ give Leaf a shot to carve out a long, productive NBA career. His father, Brad, was an outstanding player at Evansville who went on to a long career in the competitive Israeli pro league. Whoever drafts Leaf is going to want to have him on a first-name basis with the strength coach and likely will give Leaf plenty of time in the D-League as a rookie. But the tools are there to round into an efficient high-level scoring option.