LAS VEGAS — The Indiana Pacers entered the 2017-18 season as a team expected to go through growing pains following the loss of Paul George, as few expected Victor Oladipo to take the leap he did as a leading man.
The Pacers ended up earning the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference and pushing the Cleveland Cavaliers to seven games in the first round, ultimately losing out to LeBron James and company. This year, LeBron has headed West to the Lakers, leaving a void in the Eastern Conference that most assume will be filled by the Boston Celtics, but up-and-coming squads like the Pacers, Sixers, and others hope to be able to jump to the next tier.
Entering his second season in the NBA, the Pacers’ 2017 first round pick, T.J. Leaf, is working to take a leap of his own, finding himself looking to crack the rotation of a playoff squad. Leaf had 53 appearances for the Pacers in 2017-18, averaging 2.9 points and 1.5 rebounds on 47.1 percent shooting from the field and 42.9 percent shooting from three. That three-point percentage likely holds the key to Leaf finding himself in the regular rotation, as teams are always in need of more players to space and stretch the floor.
Leaf’s offensive talent is the known commodity to his game, but he knows he has other questions he must answer in order to earn those minutes, namely with regards to the physicality of being a big man in the NBA and improving as a defender.
“Coming in, I had to get stronger, more physical, and learn the physicality of the game,” Leaf told Dime from Summer League. “That’s something I’ve been working on a lot this summer, getting in the weight room, with our strength coaches, getting stronger, faster. Year one, I did learn a lot about the physicality of the game, so I kind of know what to expect now. Now I’ve just got to get my body to be able to take that stuff, and I think I’m definitely well on my way. Then, defensively, I’ve been working a lot to improve, being able to stay in front of one-on-one match ups, rebounds, offensively and defensively, and just be active. I’ve been working on a lot, I feel like my skill set is pretty high, I still am refining a lot of things in that as well. I’m trying to work on a bunch of things, just trying to get better and trying to really make some noise this year.”
These questions existed when Leaf came out of UCLA, where he averaged 16.3 points and 8.2 rebounds per game, and during his first professional season, the NBA taught him just how important those things are to being able to find minutes. With Thaddeus Young picking up his player option and Kyle O’Quinn joining the Pacers, the frontcourt rotation in Indiana will be a competitive place. Leaf’s shooting ability is something that can earn him a spot, provided those other aspects of his game come around.
On the defensive end, Leaf noted the steep learning curve required of players making the leap from college to the NBA, and hopes a year in the league in which he’s been able to get consistent practice reps against guys like Oladipo, Myles Turner, and others can pay dividends.
“Coming in, I didn’t know any of the coverage calls, or anything like that,” Leaf said. “When you’re coming in and you got, in our practice, it’s Vic coming off a pick and roll, and you have a guy like Myles setting it, whose popping or rolling, it’s definitely a big learning curve. You’ve got to know what to do, how to attack, and if you switch, you can’t give up that three, try and give up a long two, but it’s easier said than done when you’re going up against someone that athletic, that fast, that talented. It’s just something you’ve got to really work on and I’ve been doing that, trying to work at it and get better, but it’s something that I still have aways to go, and I’m going to keep working and do it.”
Leaf understands that it’s a process getting acclimated to the league. Where there are guys like Donovan Mitchell who, as he noted, “come out and kill it right away,” there are others that take a bit longer to find their role. Leaf doesn’t have to look to hard to find a guy that understands that process, as Oladipo had a number of up-and-down years prior to really finding himself and fully tapping into his potential this past season with the Pacers.
For Leaf, the thing he picked up the most from Oladipo was the importance of keeping a level head through the ups and downs of the season, and the way he carried himself no matter the outcome of the last game.
“It took him, what, this is his fifth year? He had a couple of solid years, but this is his real breakout year,” Leaf said. “It’s something he said doesn’t happen overnight. You really got to train your body, train your mind, to be successful in this league. He’s someone that … I think something I’ve learned from him this year that he doesn’t even realize, no matter how he plays the night before … after All Star break, he had a three or four-game stretch, where he didn’t play good at all. He stayed steady the whole time, and he’s the guy that comes in everyday, loud and singing. When he has four points the night before, and he still comes in the same way, or if he has a game winner against the Spurs early in the season, he still comes in that locker room the same way.”
The other Pacer that Leaf has latched onto is Young, learning the finer points of the game on defense and how to make a positive impact on the game without needing to have a huge offensive night.
“He’s someone that, he’ll have six points, but affect the game in so many other ways that if you didn’t watch the game, you don’t understand,” Leaf said. “If you don’t know the game, you don’t understand how valuable he can be at times. That’s something I’m really trying to learn from him, all the little things that he does that can really help a team win. Loose balls, deflections, being able to guard off a switch, things like that. He’s also helped me with a lot of defensive tricks and things like pick and rolls, post defense.”
This Summer League has been up-and-down for Leaf, with a rough opener before a pair of good games before he another solid outing in limited minutes in Indiana’s first tournament game. He hasn’t shot the ball well from three-point range, but it’s been an extremely small sample size and given his success in college and limited action in his first season it’s more likely that it’s a bit of a cold spell and not a sign of things to come.
As for his progress defensively and with the physicality of the game, he’s obviously a bit bigger and a bit more comfortable inside, although that remains an area that he needs to work on. Leaf likely won’t ever become a dominant defender or rim protector, but as he gets more comfortable with what the Pacers want to do on defense, he can get himself in the right positions and use his length to make opponents uncomfortable.
Last season, Indiana managed to surprise everyone with how good they were in the wake of George’s departure. While the Pacers won’t be able to sneak up on anyone this year, perhaps their second-year forward with a sweet stroke and a refined understanding about the NBA game can turn some heads.