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Indiana Pacers TJ Leaf

Can TJ Leaf Carve Out a Role in Indiana This Season?

Being in the bottom-10 in any impact stat is bad. Of last year’s bottom-10 in PIPM, six of them have either shifted organizations or been unable to find a new home altogether, suggesting that their incumbent team was no longer interested in their largely unimpactful services.

One of the four players who didn’t shift organizations was Pacers power forward TJ Leaf, who found himself with the ninth worst PIPM in the NBA last season at -4.40. Rookies are usually bad, so Leaf’s inability to have a positive impact was, holistically, unsurprising. But the degree of detriment he offered the team was the worst of any first-round pick last season.

The Pacers organization recognized his struggles very early on in the season. He played double-digit minutes in eight of Indiana’s first ten games, and then only did so ten more times in the final 72. The team wanted to win games, and Leaf was not helping.

Because of this, season two is a massively important one for Leaf. If he shows improvement, he could stick around in the NBA and have a career playing basketball. If he stagnates and it becomes apparent he can’t hang in the league, his NBA days could be numbered.

Thankfully, TJ Leaf looked refined in the preseason, and it was largely thanks to his showing off of the skills he already had shown in 2017-18, just in a larger capacity.

Despite not being able to have an impact in year 1, Leaf showed he was talented in a few areas in his inaugural year. In our talent based grading system for each player, Leaf graded out as an “A” level Perimeter Shooter, a “B+” level Finisher, and a “B” level rebounder on both ends of the floor. Most of his other skills graded out very poorly, but in these areas, he showed flashes of ability.

Leaf led Indiana in preseason minutes, averaging over 30 per game in the meaningless quartet of matchups. This was a legitimate opportunity to show that he has polished his skills and found a way to be more impactful. And he did it by fine-tuning his few strengths.

TJ Leaf can shoot. He nailed 42 percent of his threes in limited minutes last season and he canned 47 percent in major minutes at UCLA. This was his most marketable trait come draft time. In the preseason, he continued to bomb away:

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Continuing to can these shots is a key part of Leaf’s journey to impactful NBA play. If they continue to fall, he horizontally spaces the floor for his teammates, which means he can have an impact off-ball. For a (currently) very limited player, having gravity away from the rock is a huge boon to his impact.

Leaf only hit 4/12 three-pointers in the preseason, but that is a way-too-small sample size to draw any criticisms. If he hits one more, that percentage is over 40. It is more important that he took roughly 4.8 threes per 36 minutes, a large improvement over his figure from last season. More attempts at his high success rate would yield an improved efficiency and tighter defense on him away from the ball, two things that help the Pacers. His shooting from the preseason bodes well for his growth.

Two of Leaf’s other talents blended together nicely in the preseason. He graded out as a “B” level offensive rebounder last season and a “B+” level finisher. The intersection of those two skills is putbacks, perhaps the most underrated way to get an easy two points for your team.

Leaf showed some flashes of this skill in year one, but never anything quite like what we saw in preseason. He was flying in for second-chance points from all sorts of places, and he was winning countless position battles on the offensive glass:

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I had to rub my glasses to make sure that wasn’t Moses Malone! On this one, he comes flying in from the outside for the Pacers first bucket of the 2018-19 campaign:

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Putbacks are easy, efficient buckets for those who excel at getting them. If Leaf can add another dimension to his offensive repertoire that isn’t shooting, that would open up his game substantially. He would be a two-dimensional scorer that demands attention at nearly all times – someone has to stop him from catch-and-shooting and someone has to be there to box him out away from the rim when a shot goes up.

By focusing on improving his talent assets in Offensive Rebounding and Finishing, Leaf improved his impact on the offensive end of the floor. His OPIPM in the preseason was -.01. You can get disheartened by the negative sign all you want, but that is basically league average.

Last season, Leaf had an OPIPM of -1.44. In the limited sample size that is the preseason, he went from an overwhelming negative to solidly average. It’s tough to draw any conclusions from the preseason, but if that impact improvement is legit, that is huge for Leaf’s development.

A classic player comp for Leaf is Ryan Anderson, which makes a ton of sense. Both have an Offensive Role of “Pick and Pop Bigs” and both excel at similar skills. Anderson started off better than Leaf in terms of a baseline of impact, but let’s examine Ryno’s career arc up to his peak.

His rookie season PIPM was -.4, then in the three subsequent seasons, it climbed up to +.6, +2.2, and +3.4 respectively, with the final season ending in a Most Improved Player award.

Leaf needs to copy this growth pattern. Our talent grades go back to 2013-14 which is two seasons after Ryno’s MIP, but it can still tell us a lot about his talents. 2017-18 Leaf and 2013-14 Anderson have pretty similar grades across the board, with Anderson being a better post player and off-ball mover.

Perhaps these are the next steps for Leaf. Anderson is still to this day a terrible defender – his peak DPIPM is +.5. Leaf doesn’t necessarily ever have to become a good defender to be a passable NBA player. Anderson has shown us that. He just needs to iron out his current skills and then work on his post game and moving without the ball.

Perhaps he is even part of the way there on the post-game:

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If Leaf has truly improved his offensive skills enough in a way that would make him a near neutral impact player, perhaps he could carve out a role in Indiana this season. He could soak up minutes as the backup power forward spot and develop more, perhaps refining the skills that could make him follow the Ryno path.

If his preseason impact was a flash in the pan (and it could be, he got to play with the starters instead of the reserves) then Leaf could see himself out of the league in the blink of an eye. It’s do or die time for the youngster, and how he applies his talents in year two will make all the different in his career.

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