UCLA stormed off the gates with 13 straight victories to start the season and almost stole the Pac 12 opener at Oregon yesterday. Much has been made of Lonzo Ball’s prolificacy but another freshman has managed to catch the attention of NBA scouts as well.
Six-foot-10 stretch big TJ Leaf doesn’t stand out much from an athletic standpoint but has posted impressive averages of 22.5 points and 11.6 rebounds per 40 minutes over the first 14 games of his collegiate career, in a team where there’s intense competition for shots and available rebounds.
The 19-year-old is not only producing right away but he’s done so as a valuable chess piece as well. UCLA has played him at center some in five-out lineups that completely open up the lane and stress the opponent to the bone, though a closer look suggests they might not hold out as well on defense against a stronger level of competition due to his athletic limitations.
The most impressive thing about Leaf’s performance so far is his efficiency. Not only he has scored in volume but he’s doing so on 70.5% effective shooting, according to basketball-reference.
And the driving force behind that percentage is his outside shooting, as he’s nailed 16 of his 32 three-point shots so far. Leaf doesn’t elevate much off the ground and releases the ball from a low point but has proven able to get his catch-and-shoot shot off quite easily and quickly enough before opponents can contest him effectively.
According to kenpom.com, UCLA leads the country in adjusted offensive efficiency and Leaf is a huge part of it due to the spacing the threat of his shooting provides, as he’s not only a standstill spot-up shooter but has also flashed the ability to make shots out of the pick-and-pop and coming off pindown screens. Opposing big men have had their help responsibilities limited in order to stick to Leaf.
And when they’ve left him to crash inside on a drive, Leaf has shown a credible off-dribble game to attack closeouts. His shot-fake is quite effective and his handle is OK for the plays he needs to make.
He is not someone dynamic who can go side-to-side or get by his man on speed; Leaf rarely takes it all the way to the rim off the dribble, can’t elevate out of one foot to go up strong in traffic and doesn’t seek contact – averaging just 3.4 foul shots per 40 minutes.
But he’s proven able to make one-dribble pull-ups from mid-range and create short range jumpers inside the lane after using his body to get some separation against lengthier defenders. According to hoop-math, Leaf has nailed 50% of his 50 two-point jumpers – with just 36% of them assisted.
He’s able to pass on the move, working off the bounce or spotting cutters with his back to the basket, assisting on 13.7% of UCLA’s scores when he’s been on the floor so far. Leaf could in the future work as an option to assist out of the short roll or help facilitate offense from the elbows but needs to improve his court vision and risk assessment for that, as he’s averaged 2.1 turnovers per 40 minutes.
As a scorer from the post, Leaf can burn switches. He’s flashed a smooth-looking hiked-leg, turnaround, fade-away jumper and has nice touch on his hook. Leaf can also use his ball skills to go around his man while keeping his dribble alive and then finish around the basket, flashing the ability to elevate strong out of two feet.
But he’s not much of an option against opposing big men. He doesn’t have any toughness attempting to get deep position consistently, has no power moves, hasn’t yet developed particularly fluid footwork and struggles when crowded.
Leaf has not rolled to the basket a whole lot out of the pick-and-roll, even in lineups where he plays center. But he’s shown to be a pretty instinctive cutter and has nice touch around the basket on non-dunk finishes, converting 82.4% of his shots at the rim, though he doesn’t have vertical explosion to play above the rim as a target for lobs.
Leaf doesn’t impress much with his motor and has a six-foot-11 wingspan that isn’t much of an asset to help him rebound outside of his area but has contributed on the offensive glass, showing a knack for rebounding in traffic – collecting almost 10% of UCLA’s misses when he’s been on the floor, which should be considered in the context of his role as a floor spacer. His second jump is pretty good and he’s transformed 15 of his 33 second chances into putbacks.
Leaf is not necessarily a severe weak link on defense but he is limited.
He can have a foot inside the lane, closeout to a three-point shooter and contest the shot OK but doesn’t have a lot of quickness to run that shooter off the arc and prevent the shot in the first place.
Leaf can move his feet to not get completely killed on straight line drives but can’t bend his knees to get low in a stance, so he’s probably not much of an option to switch against more dynamic ball-handlers who could take him side-to-side.
He plays decent position defense in the pick-and-roll but doesn’t put much fear on dribble drivers because he lacks the length to protect the front of the basket. He makes rotations but hasn’t shown much in terms of explosiveness coming off the weak-side as a constant shot blocking threat in help defense either.
Leaf has proved himself attentive to his boxout responsibilities and able to grab contested rebounds. His .195 defensive rebounding percentage is anticlimactic but probably speaks more to the strong competition to pick up these opponents’ misses within the team than point to particular a weakness of his, though given he’s played center for quite a few minutes it’s probably something to keep an eye on.
Editor’s Note: Rafael Uehara is the managing editor of ‘Basketball Scouting’. More of his work can be found here or at Upside & Motor and at RealGM, where he is a regular contributor. He can be followed on twitter as @rafael_uehara