TJ Leaf has been overlooked by many (likely due to playing with a top five pick) playing along assumed top-5 pick Lonzo Ball, but not by scouts. The All-American coming out of high school as a senior in 2016 is 6’10” and boasts a 6’11” wingspan as a lengthy stretch four. The twenty year old Leaf has a lot of potential and raw talent, but the questions of how his game will translate to the league are already starting to pop up.
A few of the strengths Leaf has as a player bode well for him in the league. He has great athleticism and leaping ability for his size and he promotes a ton of offensive versatility. Throughout the entire season it was obvious that Leaf would be athletic enough to play in the league one day. He out runs and jumps most players on the court. With his height and size if he is able to maintain that, he’ll have success in the league without a doubt. He is versatile on the offensive end being able to play anywhere from a three to an undersized five, but if he plans on doing that in the league he will have a lot of work to do. Leaf shoots an effective percentage from 15 feet and closer, but once he extends out further, he tends to struggle much more.
Although Leaf shows a lot of promise and potential, there are many flaws in his game. He has little defensive upside, he doesn’t play in traffic well, and there are many questions on will his scoring translate to the league. Leaf struggles on defense, especially defending smaller downhill players. If a player like Westbrook or Kyrie Irving is being guarded by Leaf, he would get beat 99% of the time. Leaf has a very upright stance that allows downhill players to get past him easily. Another issue for Leaf is that he is undersized for his height. When defending a true big like Dwight Howard or Marc Gasol he would give up a ton of size being only 225 pounds. He is also slow on help side defense and inconsistent on hedging off of screens. Offensively he struggles when having to play in traffic. When contested or met by multiple defenders Leaf struggles to create off of the dribble or really do much of anything with the ball. He relies heavily on his athleticism and size in crowded situations and gives up a lot of ground on the glass. He doesn’t finish well through contact and in a league with a lot of contact as we saw in Game 4 of the Finals, he could struggle mightily if that doesn’t improve.
First Year Expectations and Fit
Make no mistake, Leaf is a project for a team. He isn’t going to come in and play any sort of meaningful minutes. In my opinion Leaf will sit in the D-League or at best toward the end of a bench on an average team. If Leaf was to be drafted by the Bucks, he would be in the D-League and would spend the year there developing his skills and bulking up into a more true big man. If he was to somehow end up on the roster (assuming the roster stays the exact same) he would be behind guys like Giannis, Jabari, Monroe, Henson, Thon, and pretty much any other big man on the team. He just isn’t ready for the league in his first year.
I see Leaf going late first to mid second round depending on what teams need and who comes off the board. With that being said I don’t expect much out of him. He could be a good role player for a team, but not much besides that. He’s limited in what he can do and has a low ceiling because of his limitations. Many of the weaknesses he has are bad habits and lack of effort. Stuff like that doesn’t fly in the league and not many coaches will be willing to put in the work to fix your flaws if you aren’t willing to put forth the effort. Personally I think Leaf is out of the league within 5 years.