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NBA Daily: T.J. Leaf Is Always Ready

Indiana Pacers’ rookie T.J. Leaf talks to Basketball Insiders about learning from veterans, adjusting to the NBA and always being ready.

Ben Nadeau



Adjusting to the life of a professional basketball player is not an easy task, just ask Indiana Pacers’ rookie T.J. Leaf.

For starters, there are the never-ending airplane rides and hotel check-ins, with each night typically ending in a different city halfway across the country. But for many first-year players, the transition also involves the difficult undertaking of finding their footing in a faster, stronger and more demanding league.

Leaf acknowledges that his rookie campaign has been both physically and mentally challenging, but the 6-foot-10 power forward is eager to keep growing — no matter if it’s on the court, bench, G-League or in the locker room. Leaf, the former No. 18 overall pick, has become determined to learn at every situation and challenge he faces.

“It’s different, I came in at UCLA and I still had to earn my way, but I was one of the better players there — and I kinda knew it,” Leaf told Basketball Insiders. “It was something where, basically from day one, I had the ball in my hands and was making plays. But here, it’s just something I gotta work for.

“I just gotta keep working, just like I did when I was younger. I just gotta keep working, keep making plays and keep getting better.”

Through the first month of his career, Leaf started strong and averaged 13.1 minutes per game — but that number steadily dropped as the Pacers, perhaps unexpectedly, became more legitimate postseason contenders. Since mid-November, Leaf has only registered a double-digit minute total in seven other games and was a healthy DNP-CD in nine more.

It’s clear that Leaf has earned his initial place in the NBA, but the rookie recognizes that it’ll take a lot of hard work to improve in this taxing league. As the back-to-backs and late-night travel days continue to pile up, the infamous rookie wall can take an exhausting toll on even the very best — so Leaf is committed to staying focused and on track.

“Mentally, physically, it’s tough — you’re on planes and in different hotels every night,” Leaf said. “It’s something you don’t really realize until you’re here — but it makes a big difference and it’s something you’ve got to adjust to.

“There are a lot of ups and downs your rookie season, but this is something I worked for — just to get here. But now that I’m here, I have another level to get to.”

To find that next level, Leaf spent a short stint with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, the Pacers’ G-League affiliate, in December. Over three games, Leaf averaged 23.3 points and 8.3 rebounds while shooting 56.4 percent from the field in 32.7 minutes — the type of dominating production a front office might come to expect from a recent first-round selection. Although Leaf’s current league numbers haven’t reached his efficient 16.3 points, 8.2 rebounds and 61.7 percent shooting averages that he tallied during his one season at UCLA, his skill-set matches up well with today’s NBA landscape. But, of course, Leaf can’t fully audition those talents without consistent and significant time on the court and with the Pacers deeply entrenched in an important postseason push, therein lies the biggest hurdle.

Naturally, it’s difficult for any rookie to break into their respective rotations, but nearly impossible when those ahead on the depth chart boast a combined 36 years of professional experience. From Al Jefferson’s team-leading 14 years down to Domantas Sabonis’ breakout sequel season, it’s been understandably tricky for head coach Nate McMillan to utilize all of his frontcourt options. But Leaf now has a deep well of knowledge to pull from, so he has embraced the opportunity despite the lack of playing time.

“Thad, Myles, Al, there’s so many guys in this locker room that help me, especially those that are at my position,” Leaf said. “Thad’s kinda been that guy all year, helping me know some tricks of the trade, telling me some secret things that can help you be successful. So, it’s been great having those guys around this year.”

That long list of veterans now happens to include Trevor Booker, the Pacers’ newest addition as of a few weeks ago. The eighth-year power forward is on his third team this season, but Booker’s energetic, hard-nosed tendencies were a stylistic fit for Indiana. Unfortunately, however, the signing will likely eat at the majority of Leaf’s remaining minutes, effectively burying the rookie behind at least four of his teammates.

But in a situation where most first-rounders might become frustrated or indignant, Leaf has done the exact opposite. Having arrived without knowledge of the playbook, it was Leaf that took an “active role” in showing Booker the ropes — even at his own detriment — according to Wheat Hotchkiss of

“Trevor is a guy that just came in, but he’s part of the team now. New guy on the team, doesn’t know the playbook and he’s at my position,” Leaf told Basketball Insiders. “So I felt like — Thad has a lot going on, he’s starting and worrying about a lot of things.

“And I felt like I was in a position where I could lend my knowledge of the playbook to him — because I do know it very well — and I felt like I could help him, so that’s what we’ve been doing.”

Down the stretch, minutes will be hard to come by for Leaf as the Pacers are currently just a half-game up on the Cleveland Cavaliers for the conference’s third seed. Nevertheless, Leaf is happy to learn from reliable veterans ahead of his first-ever postseason berth — so, ultimately, he’s in a great situation for both the short and long-term.

Invested in the Pacers’ success, Leaf remains steadfastly confident — even if his name isn’t called.

“I’m always going to be ready, I think Nate knows that. They trust me, they know what I can do, so I’m just always going to stay ready,” Leaf said.

“And if it’s not my turn that night, then I’m gonna sit down there and cheer my teammates on and try to let them know what I see.”

Ben Nadeau is a Boston-based writer in his second year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.


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Monte Morris: Waiting for his Chance

Nuggets two-way guard Monte Morris talks to Basketball Insiders about his time with Denver.

David Yapkowitz



Monte Morris has only seen action in three NBA games with the Denver Nuggets this year. While most players who receive little playing time spend most of their time at the end of the bench cheering their teammates on, Morris’ situation is a bit different. He’s spent the majority of his rookie year in the G-League.

The NBA’s minor league has grown tremendously since it’s inception in 2001. All but four NBA teams have a G-League affiliate now. There are plans for the New Orleans Pelicans to have their own team by next season, and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has spoken about having a team in Mexico.

As part of the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement, they expanded the partnership between NBA teams and their G-League affiliates even more by adding two-way contracts. Essentially creating a 16th and 17th roster spot, two-way players are allowed to split time between an NBA team and the G-League.

For Morris, two-way contracts are an added opportunity for players to make an NBA roster.

“It’s a good chance for guys to make a roster, especially second-round picks to get a chance,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “With two-way contracts, I feel like they’re going to get a lot better as far as rules and things like that go. This is the first year so they’re testing it out, but it’s a good opportunity. It’s a blessing at the end of the day.”

Morris was drafted by the Nuggets with the 51st overall pick in last summer’s draft. Second round picks are not afforded the guaranteed contract stability that comes with being a first-round pick. He was tabbed for a two-way contract almost immediately after he was drafted.

He had a stellar four years of college at Iowa State, where he was one of the top point guards in the nation as a senior. He also had a strong showing in Las Vegas with the Nuggets’ summer league team.

The Nuggets were a little crowded in the backcourt to begin the season with Jamal Murray and Emmanuel Mudiay ahead of Morris in the rotation. When Mudiay was injured and out of the rotation, Mike Malone opted to go with Will Barton as the backup point guard. The Nuggets’ trade deadline acquisition of Devin Harris pushed Morris farther back on the depth chart.

“The toughest thing is just staying mentally tough, staying true to yourself, and developing your own craft,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “Just not losing that self-confidence cause you might not play when you go up. When you come down here [G-League], take advantage of it, have fun, and keep getting better.”

Morris has definitely done his part to stand out in the G-League. The Nuggets are without a sole affiliate, so they’ve used the Houston Rockets G-League team, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, to get Morris additional experience. In 36 games with the Valley Vipers, he’s put up 18.2 points per game on 47.8 percent shooting from the field, 35.6 percent from the three-point line, 4.6 rebounds, 6.6 assists, and 1.8 steals.

He believes that if called upon, he can be a major contributor for the Nuggets. There are certain aspects he can bring to the team and he thinks it’s possible for him to play with Murray in the backcourt together.

“I think I can bring energy off the bench. I feel like me and Jamal Murray, the way the game is going you can play small ball. I feel like I can bring pace to the game and play defensively,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “I like getting after it when I’m up there with those guys on defense and getting guys open shots. I know we got a lot of scorers, my goal would be getting everybody their shots.”

Morris has been able to show he can produce at the NBA level, even if it’s a small sample size. On Feb. 9, only the second game he’s played in with Denver, he scored ten points on 4-5 shooting from the field, dished out six assists, and nabbed three steals against the Rockets.

Players on two-way contracts are allowed a maximum of 45 days with the NBA team. Those days are not solely game days; they include practices and travel days as well. Once those 45 days are up, NBA teams have the option of converting a two-way contract to a standard NBA deal provided they have roster space.

If a player uses up the 45 days and does not have their contract converted, they go back to the G-League. They can rejoin their NBA team once the G-League season ends but are not able to play in the playoffs.

For now, Morris is just biding his time, waiting for his opportunity. He’s staying ready for when the Nuggets might need him. In the meantime, he’ll continue to take advantage of what the G-League has to offer.

“It’s definitely a good starting point. It’s just all about how guys attack it on and off the court,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “It’s just being a pro and not losing confidence in your ability when you go up and don’t play. You just got to be ready, you’re really one injury away, one call away to step on and have to play.”

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Middleton, Bucks Aiming To ‘Lock In’ As Season Comes To Close

Spencer Davies catches up with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Khris Middleton in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.

Spencer Davies



Basketball Insiders had the chance to chat with Khris Middleton about the direction of the Milwaukee Bucks as the season comes to a close.

You guys won three out of four before you came into Cleveland. What was working during that stretch?

Just being us. Doing it with our defense, playing fast-paced offense. Just trying to keep teams off the three-point line. We haven’t done that. We didn’t do that [Monday] or two games ago, but it’s something we’ve just gotta get back to.

With the offense—it seems like it’s inconsistent. What do you think that’s got to do with mostly?

Just trying to do it by ourselves sometimes. Standing, keeping the ball on one side of the floor. We’re a better team when we play in a fast pace. And then also in the half court, when we move the ball from side-to-side it just opens the paint for everybody and there’s a lot more space.

For you, on both ends you’ve been ultra-aggressive here in the last couple weeks or so, does that have to do with you feeling better or is it just a mindset?

I’ve been healthy all year. Right now, it’s the end of the season. Gotta make a push. Everybody’s gotta lock in. Have to be confident, have to be aggressive. Have to do my job and that’s to shoot the ball well and to defend.

Have you changed anything with your jumper? Looking at the past couple months back-to-back, your perimeter shooting was below 32 percent. In March it’s above 45 percent.

I feel like I got a lot of great looks earlier this year. They just weren’t falling. Right now, they’re falling for me, so I have the same mindset that I had when I was missing and that’s to keep on shooting. At some point, they’re gonna go down for me.

Is knowing that every game at this point means more an extra motivator for you guys?

Definitely. We’re basically in the playoffs right now. We’re in a playoff series right now where we have to win games, we have to close out games, in order to get the seeding and to stay in the playoffs. Each game and each possession means something to us right now.

Is it disappointing to be in the position the team is in right now, or are you looking at it as, ‘If we get there, we’re going to be alright’?

I mean, we wish we were in a better position. But where we’re at right now, we’re fine with it. We want to make that last push to get higher in the seeding.

Lots of changes have gone on here. Eric Bledsoe came in two weeks into the season. You had the coaching change and lineup changes. Jabari Parker’s been getting situated before the postseason. How difficult does that make it for you guys to build consistency?

Yeah, it was tough at first. But I think early on we had to adjust on the fly. We didn’t have too many practices. There was a stretch where we were able to get in the film room, get on the court, and practice with each other more.

Now it’s just at a point where we’re adding a lot of new guys off the bench where we have to do the same things—learn on the fly, watch film. We’re not on the court as much now, but we just have to do a great job of buying in to our system, try to get to know each other.

Does this team feel like it has unfinished business based on what happened last year?

Definitely. Last year, we felt like we let one go. Toronto’s a great team. They’re having a hell of a season this year, but I feel like we let one go. This year’s a new year—a little add of extra motivation. We’ve been in the playoff position before, so hopefully, we learn from it when we go into it this year.

Would you welcome that rematch?

I mean, we welcome anybody man. We showed that we compete with any team out here. We can’t worry about other teams as much. We just have to be focused on us.

What has to happen for you guys to achieve your full potential?

Lock in. Just play as hard as we can, play unselfish, and do our job out there night-in, night-out.

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NBA Daily: Raptors Look To Fine-Tune The Defense

The Toronto Raptors’ defense had a letdown against the Cavaliers, but has been outstanding overall.

Buddy Grizzard



The Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors engaged in an offensive shootout on Wednesday that could be a playoff preview. The Cavs protected home court with a single-possession, 132-129 victory. Afterward, the Raptors spoke about the types of defensive adjustments the team needs to make as the postseason rapidly approaches.

“That’s how a playoff game would be,” said DeMar DeRozan, who missed a three at the buzzer that could have forced overtime. “This is a team we’ve been playing against the last two years in the postseason. Understanding how we can tighten up things defensively, how to make things tougher for them [is key].

“[It’s] little small things that go a long way, and not just with them … with every team.”

Raptors coach Dwane Casey concurred with DeRozan that fine-tuning of the defense is needed. He also pointed out that, with young contributors such as center Jakob Poeltl and power forward Pascal Siakam on the roster, defensive experience against the league’s best player, LeBron James, is something they will have to gain on the fly.

“I don’t think Jakob Poeltl played against him that much, and Siakam,” said Casey. “This is their first time seeing it. I thought Jak and Pascal did an excellent job, but there are certain situations where they’ve got to read and understand what the other team is trying to do to them.”

Poeltl was outstanding, leading the bench with 17 points and tying for the team lead in rebounds with eight. Casey praised the diversity of his contributions.

“I thought he did an excellent job of rolling, finishing, finding people,” said Casey. “I thought defensively, he did a good job of protecting the paint, going vertical. So I liked what he was giving us, especially his defense against Kevin Love.”

Basketball Insiders previously noted how the Raptors have performed vastly better as a team this season when starting point guard Kyle Lowry is out of the game. Much of that is due to Fred VanVleet’s emergence as one of the NBA’s best reserve point guards. VanVleet scored 16 points with five assists and no turnovers against Cleveland. It’s also a reflection of how good Toronto’s perimeter defense has been up and down the roster.

According to ESPN’s defensive Real Plus-Minus statistic, three of the NBA’s top 15 defensive point guards play for the Raptors. VanVleet ranks seventh while Lowry is 12th and Delon Wright is 14th. Starting small forward OG Anunoby ranks 16th at his position.

The Raptors also rank in the top five in offensive efficiency (third) and defensive efficiency (fifth). Having established an identity as a defensive team, especially on the perimeter, it’s perhaps understandable that Lowry was the one player in the visiting locker room who took the sub-standard defensive showing personally.

“It was a disgraceful display of defense by us and we’ve got to be better than that,” said Lowry. “We’ve got to be more physical. They picked us apart and made a lot of threes. We’ve got to find a way to be a better defensive team.”

Lowry continued the theme of fine-tuning as the regular season winds down.

“I think we’ve just got to make adjustments on the fly as a team,” said Lowry. “We can score with the best of them, but they outscored us tonight. We got what we wanted offensively. We’re one of the top teams in scoring in the league, but we’re also a good defensive team.”

Lowry was clearly bothered by Toronto’s defensive showing, but Casey downplayed the importance of a single regular-season game.

“We’ve got to take these games and learn from them, and again learn from the situations where we have to be disciplined,” said Casey. “It’s not a huge thing. It’s situations where we are that we’ve got to learn from and be disciplined and not maybe take this step and over-help here. Because a team like that and a passer like James will make you pay.”

While the Raptors continue to gain experience and dial in the fine defensive details, Casey was insistent that his players should not hang their heads over falling short against Cleveland.

“Hopefully our guys understand that we’re right there,” said Casey.

The Raptors host the Brooklyn Nets tonight to open a three-game home stand that includes visits from the Clippers Sunday and the Nuggets Tuesday. After that, Toronto visits the Celtics March 31 followed by a return to Cleveland April 3 and a home game against Boston the next night. With three games in a row against the other two top-three teams in the East, the schedule presents plenty of opportunities for the Raptors to add defensive polish before the playoffs begin.

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