T.J. Leaf knew that if UCLA kept winning this season, it would do wonders for him at the next level. So, the Bruins won 31 regular-season games and advanced to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament.
Now, Leaf is on the verge of getting drafted into the NBA and believes it’s because of the success that he was a part of at UCLA that got him to this point. He still didn’t think it would be quite this soon, though.
“Winning breeds success and it really did that for me and a lot of the guys on our team,” Leaf said Thursday at the NBA Draft Combine. “I think without winning, I wouldn’t even be in this position… I wasn’t thinking I’d be sitting in this chair right now, that’s for sure. I played [and] we won. Winning does breed success like I said. At the end of the day, that’s all we were worried about is winning and it got a lot of us here.”
Joining Leaf from UCLA at the Combine are Ike Anigbogu and Thomas Welsh. Of course, top-pick candidate Lonzo Ball opted against participating in the event, which is a move common among the elite prospects over the years.
While Ball is projected to be a top-five selection in next month’s draft, Leaf has established himself as first-round candidate after just one season in college. He averaged 16.3 points, 8.2 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.1 blocks in 35 games for the Bruins. He became an efficient shooter at UCLA after converting on 64.4 percent of his two-point attempts and 46.6 percent of his three-point attempts.
Although Leaf displayed an excellent shooting stroke this season, he excels all around on the offensive end. He really flourished in the uptempo offense the Bruins ran and showed potential teams that he has explosiveness and can run the floor as well as any big man in the draft. Measuring at 6-foot-9 at the Combine, Leaf has great athleticism for his size.
Beyond his abilities on the offensive end, he believes he stands out above the competition in other areas of the game.
“I think one is my basketball IQ,” Leaf said. “I feel like my IQ is very high, almost a point guard’s. I think can score on three levels, which a lot of bigs are not able to do. Then, I think I play hard every possession; a lot of guys tend to take plays off. I think I’m going to go at it every single play, regardless of what that is.”
As the case is for all prospects after college, the road to the NBA immediately begins. Players will spend the next several weeks working out sometimes as many as three times a day. They will work on all aspects of their game in order to fine tune things ahead of the most important stretch of their professional careers.
Leading up to the Combine, Leaf has been focusing on improving his foot speed and becoming a more consistent shooter. Perhaps the biggest weakness in his game is a lack of strength. While he is 6-foot-9, he weighed in at 222 pounds on Thursday. He says he has worked a lot on getting stronger, which will help him become better defensively and on the glass.
Improving his game is his job now.
“It’s a business now for me, it’s a job,” Leaf said. “This is my main focus now. Back [in college], it was a lot of fun playing in the tournament. Unfortunately, it didn’t end quite how we wanted it to, but it only ends how one team wants it to. It was a fun time but I’m excited for what the future holds now.”
Perhaps the most important question asked to prospects at the Combine is the teams they have met with. It’s a question all fans want to know. As most teams have moved onto the offseason now, the next chance for teams to improve is through the draft and which prospect they might have their eye on.
Teams can meet with up to 20 prospects at the Combine and most try to meet with those that they could realistically select. For instance, projected top pick Markelle Fultz has decided against meeting with teams outside of the top 10 and is only going to meet with a handful of teams that could pick him as the lottery odds currently sit.
For a prospect like Leaf, his projected range is much more fluid than Fultz’s. In Basketball Insiders’ latest consensus mock draft, Leaf is projected to be drafted as high as 15th and as low as 27th. Among the 10 teams that Leaf has met with already are the Orlando Magic, Minnesota Timberwolves and Indiana Pacers. He’ll meet with four more on Friday.
The idea of playing with the Magic, though, is one that he’s intrigued by.
“It would be awesome,” Leaf said. “Obviously, they’ve had a lot of success being in the Finals in 2009. So, they’ve had a lot of success, and with Aaron [Gordon] there and Elfrid [Payton] and a lot of other good players — it may be a lot of fun going out there and playing for them.”
Of course, all prospects love the idea this time of year before the draft of playing for any team in the NBA. It’s a question of which particular team loves a player enough to draft them. We’ll know soon enough.
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