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On T.J. Leaf and the short-term/long-term balancing act

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Plus, notes on other Media Day happenings.

New York Knicks v Indiana Pacers

On the day of the season when positivity most abounds, optimism continued to percolate for 22-year-old forward T.J. Leaf as he heads into his third year. Long a source of debate regarding his ability to play the part of a full-time rotation player, Malcolm Brogdon got the ball rolling at last week’s Pacers Foundation Golf Outing when he revealed that the rising junior has been “dominating” in pick-up, and today, Myles Turner added to that momentum when he pinpointed Leaf as a returning player from which fans should expect to see marked improvement.

“I’ve heard T.J.’s taken a big step,” said Turner, who later ushered in laughs when he qualified that Leaf was the specific T.J. he meant to be referencing. “I’ve heard T.J.’s been playing real well and looking real well. He looks stronger, he looks bigger.

I think T.J.’s one of those guys who has hasn’t necessarily had the opportunity that I think he deserves. There’s a number of reasons that have gone into that, but I think T.J.’s someone who is going to be able to step up this year. I think this is going to be his time.”

As a rookie, when the team’s pace of play deliberately tapered off so the defense could tighten up, Leaf’s inexperienced grasp of pick-and-roll coverage and rotation assignments wasn’t as naturally suited for what the team became over the second-half of the season as Trevor Booker’s interior toughness. In fact, Leaf only played 47 minutes once Booker was added to the rotation in 2018, and 21 of those minutes came in the regular season finale when the team’s playoff seeding was already decided. Last season, with Myles Turner, Domantas Sabonis, and Thaddeus Young all in need of minutes, and with three-guard lineups occasionally shifting Bojan Bogdanovic to the four, he once again struggled to break free of his every-so-often role, averaging just nine minutes in 58 games.

This year, however, opportunity is knocking. Young is no longer in the mix to sponge up minutes at the four, and as Leaf’s own past indicates, McMillan could prove resistant to turning the keys fully over to Goga Bitadze in his first season.

The Pacers haven’t had a player average even 35 minutes per game in either of the last two seasons, so it seems likely that Turner and Sabonis will each top out somewhere around 34, as was the case for Oladipo and Young in 2017-18. If that happens, then there will roughly be 28 frontcourt minutes left to go around for Leaf, Bitadze, and when Warren swings to the four-spot, which could make for an interesting balancing act in terms of weighing short-term gains against long-term goals — especially as it pertains to which areas of his game Leaf has improved.

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 in his second season, 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 the two-level scorer and floor spacer that fans want him to be.

For his part, Leaf told reporters on Friday that he worked this summer 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. Mysteriously enough, his shot got progressively flatter as last season wore on, especially in comparison to 2017-18.

For instance, look at the arc he has on his shot on this corner three as a rookie.

And, now, compare to it to this series of line-drives from last season.

Still, even if those shots start to crawl over the rim and he emerges as a spread four for the second unit, it’s worth questioning if his brand of spot-up floor spacing will be able to offer the Pacers the same competitive advantages in the playoffs as they could possibly unearth from gathering intelligence on downsizing more often with Warren or testing out Bitadze’s fit with Turner.

Having logged exactly one possession as the pick-and-roll ball-handler last season to go with exactly one possession coming off a screen, forcing opposing bigs into compromising positions as on-ball defenders or obstacle course navigators isn’t as much in Leaf’s wheelhouse as it is in Warren’s. Likewise, Leaf’s more slender build can’t provide the team with the same option to stay big without sacrificing shot-blocking, screening, or spacing as Bitadze might be able to offer alongside Turner.

“I think Warren can slide and play some four, if we have to play a smaller forward against a spread team,” McMillan said at today’s availability, while making it sound as though such a move would be made more so in reaction to an opponent than as a means to force an opponent to react to them.

Granted, it’s rarely, if ever, a bad thing to have too much talent or too many bigs that can shoot, and Leaf — as Turner noted — hasn’t fully had a chance to prove what he can do, but what that also means is that he has yet to show he can look the part in a larger role when teams are prepared for him to be in the mix and are more apt to target his weaknesses.

If he’s improved as much as Brogdon has indicated and Turner has heard, Leaf very well might be ready to settle those debates about his ability to contribute as a regular rotation player; but, in so doing, he could also end up raising some new ones about the value of a static rotation over experimentation.

Other notes:

  • When asked what it will take for the Turner-Sabonis pairing to be successful, McMillan shifted the onus onto the defense and indicated that both players have been informed that the team has added offensive players to the roster. This is a sensible take in the sense that increased pressure will be on Sabonis to tag the roller and recover to the 3-point line as the low-man as well as to sometimes step out on pick-and-rolls that involve opposing fours; however, if he struggles in that role and the defense doesn’t continue to prop up the tandem’s anemic offense as it did last season, then how he and Turner move and interact with each other on offense will be all the more important even if neither of them takes on increased usage. Oladipo, Brogdon, Warren, and Lamb need their bigs to open driving lanes and be dynamic shields, not bumper cars. The two things go hand-in-hand.
  • McMillan also made it sound like the decision to start the pairing is more something they fell into as a result of wanting to accommodate Sabonis’ desire for a bigger role than it necessarily was out of enthusiasm for being contrarian: “He feels he’s a starter,” McMillan said of Sabonis. “...He expressed that to us, and we had to make room for him to do that. We felt like he was part of the future for this organization, and we had a starting center in Myles, and Thaddeus did a great job for us, but we had to make room for him.” While this certainly indicates their commitment to Sabonis, at least in the here and now, it doesn’t exactly instill confidence that the on-court product will be vastly different in terms of roll-replace actions, relocating Turner to the corner, setting higher screens, etc. than it was last season.
  • Outside of indicating that he doesn’t have a target date for return and won’t be traveling with the team to India, Oladipo was mostly evasive when answering questions about where he is in his rehab process or what areas of his game he’s worked on and instead stuck to his usual script of “I can show you better than I can tell you.” He also explained why he feels like he has a special connection to Wolverine, because...sure, why not?