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 Pacers.com.
“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.”
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