T.J. Leaf walked on to the floor of Bankers Life Fieldhouse on April 10 for the 82nd game of the season surrounded by fellow players playing for nothing more than to prove themselves.
The Indiana Pacers had the fifth seed locked up.
The Atlanta Hawks had nothing to play for but draft position.
Without Victor Oladipo, Wesley Matthews, Bojan Bogdanovic, Thaddeus Young, Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis, Leaf dazzled the Indianapolis crowd and played the best game of his NBA career.
The 6’10’’ forward scored 28 points on 63% shooting with 10 rebounds and two blocks in a 135-134 Pacers victory, showing a flash that he can contribute at an NBA level.
But can he contribute consistently enough for the Pacers to pick up his fourth-year option on his rookie deal? Could he play himself into a second contract?
Where does he need improvement?
After his rookie year, fans were optimistic of Leaf’s potential as a stretch-4 option on offense. He shot 42.9% from behind the arc, a clip that is well-above league average.
But it was never a large enough sample size.
He only shot 42 three-pointers, making 18 of them.
Leaf took a step back last season as he shot 25.8% on 31 attempts from behind the arc. He shot fell flat, never coming off his hand well. He hesitated to shoot from deep and never found a shooting rhythm despite more playing time.
A progression toward his rookie three-point percentage would go a long way for Leaf. The Pacers front office clearly wants a stretch-4 option, as Kevin Pritchard has brought that up in multiple circumstances. With the Turner-Sabonis pairing seemingly being the future starting frontcourt, a viable stretch-4 option could carve themselves a role with this team.
The most obvious area of improvement is in his defense. The UCLA-product simply does not have the agility and hip mobility to stay with NBA-caliber players.
Attacking closeouts might be his worst area. Leaf often gets blown by when closing out on the perimeter, which leaves the defense vulnerable behind him.
To carve a consistent role on the Pacers, or any team in the association, Leaf needs to improve on the defensive end. As of right now, he is way too big of a liability to play consistent minutes.
What does he do well?
Leaf’s lack of athleticism hinders him on defense, but it does not hinder him with rebounding. Surprisingly, Leaf is a very effective rebounder, especially on the offensive end.
Leaf posted a TRB% of 13.3%, which is on par with Turner and better than Young. His ORB% is 9.3%, good for second on the Pacers for qualified players, behind only Sabonis.
He simply has a knack for knowing where the ball is going to end up.
That’s an important skill to have, especially with a team like the Pacers who finished 24th in the league in rebounding.
What Leaf lost in outside shooting, he gained in finishing around the rim. Offensively, that was the area of his game he improved the most.
Leaf shot 72.7% at the rim, which was an 11.5% increase from his rookie year. His efficiency at the rim last year was second-best on the team, only trailing Sabonis.
Leaf also improved in almost every facet of his game besides his outside shooting. With only a 0.3 MPG bump from his rookie year, he increased his PPG, RPG, APG, SPG, BPG and FG%.
The advanced statistics support this as well, his BPM jumped from -4.8 to -1.0, his VORP increased from -0.3 to 0.1 and his PER increased from 10.7 to 16.9.
Those are still not great advanced statistics, but the improvement is promising. Leaf will make $4.3 million if Indiana picks up his fourth-year option. That’s a fairly big number for someone who hasn’t broke 10 MPG yet in his career.
Yet, it’s not completely out of the picture for the team to exercise his fourth-year. It’s just going to take a leap. Does he have it in him?