Leaf, who averaged 3.9 points and 2.2 rebounds in his second season, is slated to make in the neighborhood of $2.18 million this season and $4.3 million in 2020-21, when salary cap projections have been lowered to $116 million — without accounting for potential fallout from the NBA’s situation with China. Per Early Bird Rights, Indiana has $102 million committed in guaranteed salary for 2020-21, which means a hypothetical extension for Domantas Sabonis in the annual average value range of $14-16 million (a slight haircut in comparison to Myles Turner’s $18 million AAV, but a bit of bump from what veteran centers like Brook Lopez and Dewayne Dedmon garnered this summer) would put them over the cap and therefore incentivize them to make low-risk investments in their own players now.
After all, if the Pacers had declined Leaf’s option and he then went on to make a leap in his third season, they would be barred, per rule, from offering him a first-year salary higher than $4.3 million in free agency.
Still, given that Leaf has yet to make an appearance in preseason due to a quad injury, the timing of this decision seems notable. The deadline for rookie scale options is October 31, so the fact that they didn’t opt to take advantage of the next few weeks to further evaluate him in live action should also be perceived as confidence in what they’ve seen from him prior to and during training camp in addition to being a reflection of their potentially limited spending power.
Having yet to fully harness his skills as a stretch-four at either end of the floor, Leaf’s 3-point percentage plummeted in somewhat bizarre fashion from 42.5 percent as a rookie to 25.9 percent as a sophomore, but he’s quick off his feet to the offensive glass, and he shot an impressive 73 percent in the restricted area last season where he showed off improved post-play as well as some flashes of change of speed and elegant finesse when attacking closeouts and in transition. If he can meld those skills with his shooting touch from Year-1 and maintain some of the strides he made as a team-defender, then it will be easier to look past his slow-motion, lunge-like closeouts that beg to be driven and see him as a two-level scorer and potential bargain.
At Media Day, Leaf told reporters that he put in work during the offseason to improve his conditioning and put more arc in his jump-shot, a tweak which could prove valuable if it leads to a reduction in his slew of short misses.
After sitting out the first two practice games in India, Leaf is expected to debut his new shot trajectory versus the Bulls at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Friday.
According to The Athletic’s Shams Charania, the Pacers have also picked up the third-year option on Aaron Holiday, who is widely expected to assume back-up point guard duties, though it should be noted that he entered Saturday’s game behind T.J. McConnell.
With rookie scale decisions in for both Leaf and Holiday, next up on the docket for the Pacers in terms of roster management is finalizing an extension for Sabonis ahead of the 6:00 PM deadline on Monday, October 21.