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What T.J. Leaf Means for the Future of Pacers Basketball

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Last Thursday, Indiana selected T.J. Leaf with the 18th pick in the 2017 NBA draft. Leaf played only one season at UCLA and averaged 16.3 ppg and 8.2 rpg.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Kent State and UCLA Bruins
T.J Leaf shoots a floater against Kent State in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Leaf was selected 18th overall by the Pacers.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been five days since the NBA draft and after some time to fully research the T.J. Leaf pick, I thought it was time to share my thoughts. I know the Paul George rumors are swirling, particularly a three team Cleveland and Denver trade, but seeing how they’re all still rumors I don’t see a need to address them until something happens.

At first glance T.J. Leaf seems like the typical Pacers/Larry Bird pick (think Miles Plumlee and Tyler Hansborough). I know Kevin Pritchard is the new president, but he’s been working under Bird for five years and Bird is still an advisor to the team.

However, the only similarities between Leaf, Hansborough, and Plumlee is their size. All three players are around 6’10” and have wingspans close to 7’. If you dig deeper into Leaf’s style of play, he’s totally different than the other two.

Yes, at this point he’s thin, but he’s only 19 years old and almost every freshman drafted this year will need to put on 15-20 lbs. of muscle to compete in the NBA. It’s hard to find any 19-year-old that has already maxed out his muscle growth potential. Just look at Gordon Hayward and Steph Curry in 2011 versus 2017.

Being an NBA player is totally different than playing in college. In college, players’ time is divided between academics, having a social life (girls and parties), sports, and they aren’t paid. Now, Leaf’s life is essentially getting paid to workout every day with professional trainers. He’ll put on some more weight if he’s committed.

Leaf’s offensive potential is also higher than both Plumlee and Hansborough. He isn’t going to run players off the court or pull up on them at will. However, he will be an effective three-point shooter - he was a 46 percent three-point shooter at UCLA - and will take advantage of mismatches among bigger, less skilled power forwards.

Leaf has a great shooting form that should easily transfer to the NBA. Like Draymond Green, Leaf could become a point forward. He’s a great ball handler, and in attempt to push the pace of play, the Pacers could have him bring up the ball after a rebound. He did it at UCLA.

Leaf’s biggest strength might be his touch around the rim. Leaf is a skilled big-man who, when given the chance to take shots around the rim, won’t miss. Think alley-oops and put-back layups.

Leaf is also a perfect complement for Myles Turner. Obviously with Paul George out the door Turner will become the Pacers’ focal point on offense. If Leaf and Turner develop into effective three point shooters (40 percent or higher), Indiana could have a starting line-up with five three-point shooting threats. Not even Golden State starts a lineup like that.

Yes, defense might be an issue, but who cares? For the past 20 years Indiana has played smash mouth basketball. The Leaf and Turner era could see Indiana playing fast and averaging close to 110 points per game. Even if the Pacers don’t win a lot of games in the next two seasons, they could still be fun to watch at the very least. Unlike last season, where Indiana was just frustrating.

P.S.

I know I said I wouldn’t discuss a hypothetical trade with Denver…Surprise, I couldn’t resist.

Indiana gets: Wilson Chandler, Emmanuel Mudiay, Gary Harris

Cleveland gets: Paul George

Denver gets: Kevin Love

It’s true that this team isn’t winning a championship. However, with this trade, Indiana can turn George into quality rotation players. Usually it takes years to accumulate rotation players but the Pacers can do it all in one trade. Mudiay and Harris are still very young and have lots of potential. Who knows? Turner might turn into a superstar and the Pacers could be a playoff contender like they were in the early years of Paul George, i.e. 2012. If this offer is on the table Indiana must take it.

Indiana Pacers’ new lineup under this offer:

PG: Emmanuel Mudiay

SG: Gary Harris

SF: Glenn Robinson

PF: Thaddeus Young

C: Myles Turner

6: Wilson Chandler

7: Lance Stephenson

8: T.J. Leaf

This team could make the playoffs as the 7 or 8 seed.