After three years with the Pacers, forward T.J. Leaf was involved in a trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday that was largely a salary dump to get Indiana underneath the tax.
Leaf has held an awkward place among Pacers fans, and with him now off to a new opportunity in OKC, I find it pertinent to address Leaf’s tenure in Indy.
Let’s start off with some stats that help paint the picture of T.J.s time in Indiana.
Tale of the Tape
39 - T.J. Leaf is 39th in minutes played for the 2017 draft class. While pure minutes played isn’t a direct indication of ability, Leaf is sandwiched between Ivan Rabb and Jawun Evans for minutes played. Even more astounding; Rabb and Evans combined have only played two more games in their career than Leaf has (141-139).
50 - Leaf played 10+ minutes in only 50 of his 139 appearances.
3 - Leaf played in a grand total of three G-League games with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants. More on this later.
You’ve heard it all before no doubt:
“John Collins was drafted right after T.J. Leaf”
“OG Anunoby played at IU and was drafted 4 spots after!”
And those are valid points! Granted, I didn’t expect Collins to pop the way he has and grow into a legitimate floor spacer on solid volume. With Anunoby, there were obviously the injury concerns, but that’s still not an excuse. The flashes of what he might be in the league were routinely showed when he played in Bloomington.
However, I want to point out how hit or miss this draft was around the late first and early second.
Justin Patton (9 NBA games played, largely due to injury( was drafted with the 16th pick.
DJ Wilson who was drafted one pick ahead of Leaf at 17, had similar projections as a floor spacing big, but has arguably struggled to crack an NBA rotation even more than T.J. Leaf.
Later in the first, Caleb Swanigan, Tyler Lydon, and Tony Bradley were all taken. Swanigan has been largely out of place without a real concrete position in today’s NBA, Lydon played 26 total games in his first two years and was out of the league this season, and Bradley has shown the most, earning a back up role on a solid playoff team in Utah before a trade this off-season.
The Pacers are not absolved from the selection of T.J. due to draft picks that didn’t work out for other teams. It’s blatantly clear now that T.J. Leaf is not an NBA player. Hopefully he can turn things around in Oklahoma City and carve out another contract in the NBA, but at the moment, that seems unlikely.
The point is that the draft is a crap shoot. A team and player development/scouting staff can watch all the film that’s out there on a prospect, interview him numerous times, talk to his parents, friends, AAU coaches and vet him thoroughly and still get it wrong.
Kevin Pritchard was in a tough spot with his first draft pick. They had an established four with Thaddeus Young and the idea of T.J. Leaf as a four man who could stretch the floor more reliably than Thad could made sense. In hindsight, you can pick out how significant of a role Lonzo Ball played in T.J. Leaf popping on UCLA tape. You can point at the free throw shooting as a more reliable indicator of his shooting than his low volume yet high efficiency shooting at UCLA. While there were some who saw that then, many looked at T.J. Leaf, and he made a great deal of sense.
T.J. Leaf was not a bust, and I’ll fight that notion. I think it’s disingenuous to label Leaf as such. Did he produce well or at a high level? No. But, it’s murky.
Leaf not catching on with the Pacers is a conglomeration of so many things that went wrong.
Foremost, for T.J. to really solidify himself given his atheltic limitations, he needed to become an outlier offensive performer. After adding on some muscle, which was necessary for him to compete with other fours, his shot noticably changed with the added mass. What projected to be his one elite skill at the NBA level dissipated, which leads us to our next point.
Nate McMillan is a good coach, who always notably got the most from the roster and his rotations. For a player like T.J. who needed development and an opportunity to crack the rotation, playing for Nate made it nearly impossible.
I struggle to say how that’s any one person’s fault. Nate’s job was to win games, Leaf’s was to improve as a player. Because T.J. was not helping to win games, he simply wasn’t playing, and much of his time on court came during blow out losses or one-sided victories, limiting the chance to play high leverage moments.
Practice is of course a vital part of growth and development, but without game reps, it’s so difficult to actually make on court improvements. Playing in game is such a different feel and environment from practice. It’s faster, more competitive, and you’re not running against teammates whose games you know inside and out.
The biggest dilemma I get hung up on with T.J. Leaf and his development; why wasn’t he playing in the G-League? According to reporting from the Indy Star this summer, T.J. Leaf declined G-League assignments.
As mentioned above, Leaf played in a grand total of three G-League games while he was with Indiana. While playing in Fort Wayne isn’t the same developmentally as playing with the Pacers, it’s still something and a real opportunity to work on your craft in game.
Regardless, even with extended minutes or opportunities in the NBA or G-League with Indy, I’m unsure that things would’ve clicked for T.J. Leaf. But, the point is that if he’d gotten real shots at development minutes or to showcase his game, the Pacers may have been in a better position to
A. move on earlier in a way that doesn’t require attaching assets to shed his contract
B. actually provide T.J. Leaf a semi-realistic pathway for him to develop/grow.
You can’t expect a player to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps” and into the rotation of a mid-tier playoff team. There are very few player’s who can come in as rookies and contribute effectively to a playoff rotation. T.J. was incredibly raw physically and was not going to be that player. That’s part of the Pacer conundrum.
When you’re always hellbent on winning, how do you develop rookies and young players that may not be conducive to those goals? If Leaf averaged an extra 3 or 4 minutes per game in his first and second season it’s entirely possible the Pacers lose more games.
With the entrance of new coach Nate Bjorkgren in tandem with the pressers from the front office, this team appears ready to move forward. They seem extremely willing to be versatile and flexible, with a more fluid rotation allowing for growth and development opportunities that weren’t readily present under the last coaching staff.
T.J. Leaf may never have been able to live up to his draft position even with more playing time, but he was stuck in end of bench purgatory, arguably the worst spot for a player who needs more in-game reps.
The Pacers undoubtedly missed on the 18th pick in 2017, but it’s so much more than being a “bust.” I’d be more than surprised if Kevin Pritchard and his staff haven’t learned from the first draft pick of his tenure as President of Basketball Operations.
T.J. Leaf worked hard, it just didn’t work out. Pacers Nation should wish him nothing but the best.