T.J. Leaf considers himself a pretty good student of the game who knows the rosters of every NBA team.
“I know it from just being a gym rat and loving and watching basketball,” he said at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago last month. “I know it from playing 2K.”
So, even though he grew up on the West Coast and played at UCLA, the 6-10, 222-pound forward knew all about Miami’s second-half turnaround last season — more than you would expect anyway.
“Coach [Erik] Spoelstra did a heckuva job with that roster,” Leaf said. “Dion Waiters really came along. Obviously, [Hassan] Whiteside is who he is and [Goran] Dragic. They have a lot of weapons. I think if they would have made the playoffs they could have made some noise.”
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Leaf, 20, could be on the verge of getting to know the Heat much more intimately.
A gifted scorer and prototypical stretch four in today’s NBA, Leaf worked out privately for the Heat on Thursday and most mock drafts believe he will be available when Miami picks 14th next week.
NBADraft.net has Leaf going 16th to the Chicago Bulls, USA Today has him slotted 18th to the Indiana Pacers, and NBA Draft Express has him going to the Portland Trail Blazers with the 20th pick.
“Opinions on Leaf are all over the board,” ESPN’s Chad Ford said recently. “He’s one of the most-gifted scorers in the class and he has a great feel for the game. [But] he lacks strength and elite lateral quickness, making him a potential liability on the defensive end. However, at this point in the draft [in the teens], anyone a team picks is going to have a glaring weakness or two. Leaf’s ability to get buckets should make him valuable.”
Leaf comes from an athletic family. His father Brad played nearly two decades in Israel’s top basketball league and Leaf was born in Tel Aviv. As a player, Leaf’s father was exposed to European big men like Toni Kukoc and Vlade Divac who pass from the post and create shots on the perimeter. So he always coached T.J. to be the kind of big man who played with guard-like qualities.
“I feel like my IQ is very high, almost a point guard’s,” Leaf said last month at the combine. “I feel I can score on three levels, which a lot of bigs are not able to do. And I think I play hard on every possession. A lot of guys tend to take plays off. I will go at it every single play.”
In 35 games at UCLA, Leaf averaged 16.3 points, 8.2 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.1 blocks and shot 46.6 percent on three-pointers. He shot 61.7 percent from the field for the season, becoming UCLA’s first player since Bill Walton in 1973-74 to have shot at least 60 percent from the field while making 200 or more field goals.
“He’s very skilled,” Bruins coach Steve Alford said earlier this season of Leaf. “He can beat you inside. He can beat you outside.”
Yet, Leaf has his critics.
Scouts say he could benefit from added strength to help in rebounding, defending and finishing around the rim. They also say he’s often a step slow rotating off the ball defensively and doesn’t affect a high percentage of shots at the basket. His 6-11 wingspan isn’t overly impressive either for a player his height.
Leaf acknowledges he needs to work on his foot speed and strength, but feels he’s more athletic than people give him credit for.
LaVar Ball, the father of UCLA teammate and point guard Lonzo Ball, infamously ripped into Leaf and others after the Bruins were knocked out of the NCAA Tournament back in March when he said “you can’t win no championship with three white guys because the foot speed is too slow.”
Leaf sidestepped questions related to Ball’s father at last month’s combine including the family’s new shoeline, which is selling its most-expensive pair of sneakers for $495. Lonzo Ball is expected to be selected with the second pick by the Los Angeles Lakers.
“Me and Lonzo are really close off the court and on the court,” Leaf said. “It was a blast playing with him this year. We’re still very close. We talk all the time. I’m close with him and his family. He has a great family. Obviously his dad is pretty bold in what he says. But that’s his father. He loves him, and at the end of the day he wants what’s best for his son.
“I think [my game] translates well [to the NBA]. Like I said, I’m able to score on three levels which a lot of bigs are not able to do. I think I can do it consistently as well, and I think that’s become a premium in the NBA.”
Height: 6-9 3/4
Vertical: 34 1/2