In advance of the 2017 NBA Draft, Peachtree Hoops will be breaking down a wide variety of players that could be available for the Atlanta Hawks at either No. 19 or No. 31. The series will stretch throughout the month of June and today’s installment focuses on UCLA power forward T.J. Leaf.
Having chosen to enter the NBA draft after his freshman season at UCLA, T.J. Leaf will compete in a class heavy on front court players and unusually thin at the wing position. This draft class might not look optimal for a big man that does not appear to be headed toward the lottery. But when looking at his decision from another perspective, it might make complete sense; this draft is not flush with advanced offensive players. Leaf possesses an attractive offensive skill set and is coming off of a very productive season that might set him apart as draft day approaches.
The other consideration that might even make his decision seem even more logical is this: after playing a season with one of the most advanced offensive facilitators in recent NCAA history, Lonzo Ball, would anyone think that playing a subsequent season at the college level along side a different point guard would enhance his standing as a draft prospect? The answer, to me, seems like an obvious no.
In a draft especially short on perimeter shooters, Leaf profiles as an offensive player that can space the floor as a front court player. Every team in the NBA is looking for stretch bigs and none of them will be satisfied having just one. Prior to playing at the collegiate level Leaf did not seem to be the most eager shooter, especially from range. But the spacing that he and his Bruins teammates achieved seemed to help every player on the floor play with a consistently increasing level of confidence.
Look at how some of his statistics compare to the three front court draft prospects expected to be drafted in the lottery by most mock drafts.
TJ Leaf Stats Comp.csv
*Note: stats are based on per 40 minute averages.
Leaf ifsnot the fastest player for his position, but he runs the floor well and seems comfortable in transition. He demonstrates a capable handle for a player his size which can help him punish close out defenders by attacking the paint when the match up allows.
He has excellent footwork and above average passing skills from the high post; this should make him an excellent fit for the NBA “Horns Action.” His shooting mechanics are pretty clean and includes a high degree of replication; his release is not the fastest but seems quick enough.
At the rim he can play with some verticality, but only when he has the time and space to load up. Otherwise he demonstrates good touch with his jump hooks and runners, but stronger defenders often push him off of his spot before he can initiate. I would not expect him to convert enough at the rim especially through contact at a high rate at the next level. So as to be able to maximize his ability to counter close out defenders he is going to need to develop a step back 3-point shot, which should be reasonably possible if he can speed up his release a little.
As a rim protector and a rebounder, Leaf has good feel and timing and meets the ball consistently at the apex of his jump. But similar to the offensive end of the court, bigger opponents are going to push him toward a less advantaged position and force him to use a recovery jump which makes him far less effective.
His most concerning flaws can be seen in his play as a perimeter defender, especially versus the pick and roll. In space he does not maintain a defensive posture and gets caught flat footed with far too much frequency.
He looks to me like a player that might not have been challenged to play much defense prior to the collegiate level. But teams will have to determine how much more improvement might be possible based upon how long he has actually been trying to become a legitimate defensive player. My best guess is that he is going to have to become a very high IQ defender as to play important minutes in an NBA rotation.
Potential Fit for the Hawks
Leaf looks like a potentially attractive option for the type of spacing the Hawks prefer to leverage in the half-court offense. His is really solid with the ball as his 4:1 assist to turnover ratio would attest. He does not seem ready to operate as a primary weapon in pick and roll action on offense, but when paired with a front court player that can handle most of the high screen action he should be able to have value off the ball, especially as a spacer.
Defensively he is not ready to help a team that is trying to play competitive basketball. But enough raw skills are there, especially as a rebounder, for teams that value his offensive profile to take a chance on him.
He is competing in a crowded field of front court players in this draft class but has an offensive game that could differentiate him in this group. The team that eventually selects him will do so because of the potential he shows as a shooter. The rest of his game will need to be advanced through strong coaching and a good training and sports science staff. By the end of his second professional season there is some likelihood that he could be ready to be tested with some regular minutes in the right situation.