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TJ Leaf is a case study for offensive rebounding

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On how instinctual reactions impact fastbreak opportunities.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Indiana Pacers Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Though he averages fewer than 2.5 offensive rebounds per 36 minutes, third-year player TJ Leaf leaves a lasting impression with the way he pursues the offensive glass in his limited and oftentimes sporadic playing time. He isn’t physical, and he rarely scraps, but he has a very quick second jump and makes it a priority to keep the ball high, allowing him to shoot 12-of-14 on putbacks.

Whether recycling his own errant shots, running the floor hard in transition, looping from the corners, or rushing in when lifted to the opposite slot — the bulkier, yet still relatively slender, power forward chases hard after his team’s misses in spite of the fact that there typically aren’t that many to go around when he’s on the floor.

Indiana’s reserves have the second-highest field goal percentage in the NBA among benches, and Domantas Sabonis (with whom Leaf has played over 55 percent of his minutes this season) collects the rebound himself 42.9 percent of the time when he boxes out. Per the NBA’s box-out data, only five of the 32 players who average at least six box-outs per game grab the board more often when they wall their opponent off from the glass. Looking exclusively at just the offensive end of the floor, the Lithuanian big man gobbles up 11.7 percent of Indiana’s misses, a mark which ranks 13th league-wide.

With Sabonis being downright gluttonous with the spoils of dirty work, Leaf catches the eye with the manner by which he inconspicuously manages to glide down or around the lane in search of non-guaranteed leftovers.

Such was the case last week in Dallas, when the springy forward came from outside the 3-point line to snatch this long-distance rebound:

Even when considering that foul trouble had backed the Pacers into playing a small-ball lineup with Thaddeus Young at nominal five that would be better equipped to handle turning quickly from end-to-end, this is borderline brazen from Leaf.

Roll back the film and make note of where the 21-year-old’s teammates were standing in relation to their checks. All five (yes, five) Mavericks have inside position, and the rest of the Pacers not involved in the Joseph-Leaf pick-and-pop action are stationed below the free throw line — meaning they’re vulnerable to potential leak outs.

If Leaf crashes and doesn’t come away with that board, he risks Dorian Finney-Smith being in prime position to take off unattended for the other end until Joseph can get back after releasing the shot. Instead, the still-developing forward ends up preying upon the league’s general lack of appetite for boxing out players from the perimeter.

What happens next is where it gets interesting.

Almost the same scenario plays out, again:

McDermott is outside the frame this time after clearing out for Joseph to pick on Nowitzki, but look at Finney-Smith. The 3-and-D role player’s response to what transpired on the prior possession isn’t to try to get out and run. His instinctual reaction is to keep Indiana’s reserve four off the glass.

Leaf is being treated like a threat, not an exploitable opportunity.

On the night, the Mavericks only scored five fastbreak points in the 17 minutes that the 21-year-old forward was on the floor, a team-low.

Of course it begs mentioning in this space that Leaf’s pursuit of offensive rebounds is just one branch in the twisted vine that may have restricted Dallas’ lack of productivity in the open floor over that stretch of play.

For one, the Pacers have the second-best transition defense in the league. They also shot better than 55 percent during Leaf’s minutes while only committing four turnovers, which means the Mavericks were being forced to take the ball out of the net at a decent clip when they already aren’t particularly quick to push the pace (Dallas ranks 19th in possessions per game, and they’re one of only six teams attempting less than 10 percent of their shots from within 22 and 18 seconds of the shot-clock expiring).

So, Leaf (in and of himself) wasn’t the direct cause of the effect, but the above cited possessions still suggest that he was at the very least a factor among many.

For the season, the Pacers have held opponents to fewer fastbreak points per 100 possessions in the 384 minutes that the 2018 first-round draft pick has been on floor than they have overall.

While admittedly a small sample size, Leaf could nonetheless end up serving as an interesting case study in whether, for the Pacers, chasing misses from the perimeter acts more like a deterrent to fastbreak opportunities than a presumed invitation.