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TJ Leaf: A Look at UCLA’s Versatile Power Forward

UCLA’s leading scorer may be a potential steal in the late first round

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-South Regional-Kentucky vs UCLA Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

In an era where versatility reigns supreme, TJ Leaf is easily one of the most versatile front court players in the draft. While he was a bit overshadowed by Lonzo Ball in his one year at UCLA, Leaf is very capable of making an impact on many teams throughout the league. Should he slip in the draft, he has the potential to be a steal in the late first round.

Offense:

Leaf was instrumental to UCLA’s top ranked NCAA offense. His versatility led him to average a team high of 16.3 points per game on very efficient shooting. He shot 46% from behind the three point line on 1.7 attempts a game, a feat one rarely sees in a big man. Furthermore, Leaf scored at a very high rate of 64% on nearly 6 two point attempts per game. However, statistics are not able to paint the full picture of the 6’10 220lb power forward.

In addition to his efficiency, Leaf is a player who can fit seamlessly onto any team. As indicated by his shooting splits, he is a threat from everywhere on the court. His soft touch combined with his strong basketball IQ and elegant footwork allow him to keep defenders guessing and off balance. When guarded by bigger, stronger players, Leaf would often play further from the basket and take them off the dribble, utilizing his speed and agility to score. On the other hand, when opposing teams tried guarding him with smaller players, Leaf was more than capable of posting up and showing off his crafty footwork to get easy looks around the rim. With the ball in his hands, the only thing certain about TJ Leaf was that he would make the right play given his good instincts and understanding of the game.

The first major weakness of Leaf’s game is his free throw shooting. He shot a subpar 68% from the free thrown line on 3 attempts a game, which is a bit surprising given that he is a skilled overall shooter.

The more important concern is his size and overall strength as an athlete. While he was often able to capitalize on college player’s defensive weaknesses, Leaf is not exceptionally quick or strong. He will not be able to post up as often as he did in college, nor will he be able to beat defenders off the step. Leaf often struggled when guarded by tweeners and more athletic wings, who often forced him into bad shot attempts. Similar to his teammates on UCLA, Leaf also strayed away from contact.

Overall, Leaf has one of the more versatile offensive arsenal’s in the draft. Nevertheless, he needs to gain strength if he hopes to be a successful player in the NBA. For as good as he is, the transition to the professionals will be extremely difficult for him, as NBA defenses will almost certainly give him major problems.

Defense:

Simply put, TJ Leaf is a below average defender who will struggle to make any sort of positive impact for team’s on the defensive end. For however good his instincts are on offense, the opposite can be said about his defensive instincts. Leaf simply lacked defensive awareness, often losing cutters and failing to rotate correctly. He tended to get burned in pick and roll situations and bullied when faced with stronger forwards. His size and speed led to him having matchup problems overall, which will only become a more significant problem in the NBA. Arguably the only defensive upside to Leaf is his solid rebounding ability, which again, may be hampered in the NBA when faced with more athletic defenders.

Player Comparison:

A strong rebounding, versatile power forward with range and craftiness near the rim coming out of UCLA sounds awfully familiar. It is no surprise that TJ Leaf has drawn comparisons to Kevin Love. Both are limited athletically but they also find ways to thrive with a soft touch and very good instincts on offense. They know where to be on the court at all times, and they can be a threat from any range.

That being said, both also tend to struggle in certain matchups, and their defense constantly leaves much to be desired. Their lack of speed often makes them seem to flat footed, and their defensive awareness is simply nowhere near their offensive IQ. While it would take pretty significant strides for Leaf to reach anywhere near the level of player Kevin Love is, their play styles are eerily similar.

Conclusion:

Ultimately, TJ Leaf is a stellar prospect who has the potential of making an impact on whichever team decides to draft him. His range alone makes him an intriguing prospect, but combined with his versatile offensive arsenal, it is easy to see why his stock has been on the rise. That being said, the concerns about his transition to the NBA are legitimate. His average size and speed may prove to be problematic on the offensive end, and his lack of defense is a red flag. Should he be able to get stronger and adjust to the speed of the game at the professional level, which is definitely possible given his work ethic and understanding of the game, he has the potential to be an absolute steal in the draft.