Prior to and through Indiana’s five-game west coast road trip in January, which concluded with the Pacers holding the Spurs to well-below a point per possession in San Antonio, T.J. Leaf averaged 9.7 minutes of action and made an appearance in 38 of 47 games. After that particular swing, however, he only logged nine or more minutes twice while not playing by coach’s decision in 15 of the team’s last 35 games.
Around that same point of the season when the rookie’s minutes initially began to be more consistently few and far between, Indiana’s helter-skelter pace deliberately tapered off so the defense could tighten up.
As such, Leaf’s diminished role, in and of itself, didn’t usher-in the team’s turnaround at that end of the floor as much as the revamped defensive-minded approach called for the increased absence of his skinny frame and sketchy lateral quickness.
Tellingly, Nate McMillan returned to regularly playing a three-and-a-half-big rotation to close the season, but the half belonged to Trevor Booker’s rebounding, physicality, and veteran experience.
The game rarely appeared too fast for Leaf’s natural fluidity on offense, but his defense was too slow for the game — especially when the game slowed down.
How did T.J. Leaf impress?
His three-point conversion rate from his freshman season at UCLA (27-of-58) translated to the NBA’s longer distance (18-of-42) while posting a modern shot distribution, thus reinforcing his aptness for efficiently stretching the floor from the power forward position.
In addition to spreading the defense, the carryover of his shooting was key to opening up other aspects of his game.
Whenever bulkier opponents crowded him out beyond the arc, the 21-year-old showed the ability to intuitively attack closeouts by leveraging his skilled finesse.
For instance, before Chicago’s Bobby Portis could get balanced recovering to the spindly shooter out of the pick-and-pop, Leaf took advantage of the second-year player’s forward momentum by immediately putting the ball on the floor with his off-hand and finishing at the rim with a left-handed floater.
Against Caleb Swanigan, he drove right and went up-and-under with a side-step to score around the 250-pound power forward for a lay-up.
He also revealed some encouraging flashes of know-how when it came to reading off-ball screens and reacting to changes in defensive coverage.
During a blowout win in Phoenix, he curled around Al Jefferson on the block for an easy basket.
When his man cheated the action a few possessions later, Leaf countered by flaring to the corner and driving baseline.
Obviously these are hand picked sequences from spot minutes, but their very existence reflects the potential of his mature understanding of how to put the ball in the basket.
How did T.J. Leaf disappoint?
He appeared a few seasons away from possessing the strength necessary to consistently avoid shying away from contact at the rim or hold his spot on the block, and his equal parts clumsy and clunky footwork defending in space had a tendency to exacerbate his already loose grasp of pick-and-roll coverage and rotation assignments.
Here, for example, he jumped out above the level of the screen to disrupt Emmanuel Mudiay’s downhill momentum, but he continued to pressure the ball-handler well-after Joe Young had fought through the pick.
Rather than recovering to his man with high hands, Leaf just sort of meandered around the high paint while Trey Lyles easily shot over the top of Young’s scrambling attempt to contest the height of his release.
On the season, opponents scored 9.1 points per 100 possessions more when Leaf was on the floor as opposed to off, which was the worst differential among Indiana’s regular rotation players.
What’s next for T.J. Leaf?
Summer League in Las Vegas, where perhaps his defensive principles can start to be developed with the benefit of steadier minutes and the freedom to play through mistakes.
“I think this is a very important summer for him,” Nate McMillan said of Leaf at the team’s end-of-season press conference.
It has the potential to become exponentially so, depending upon what Thaddeus Young decides to do with his nearly $14 million player option.
Leaf has the makings of a legitimate power fauxward; but, at least for now, his stretchy shooting will have to outpace his inelastic defense.