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Stiffs NBA Draft prospect watch: T.J. Leaf

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Leaf is a potential stretch-4 with some nice offensive skills, but is that what Denver is looking for?

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Kent State and UCLA Bruins Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Stiffs will be covering the top prospects for the Denver Nuggets in the 2017 NBA Draft in our Stiffs Prospect Watch series. Check back daily for video, stats, and of top first round prospects.

T.J. Leaf - UCLA

Stats

Points Rebounds Assists Steals Blocks Turnovers Field Goal % Three point % Free throw %
Points Rebounds Assists Steals Blocks Turnovers Field Goal % Three point % Free throw %
16.3 8.2 2.4 0.6 1.1 1.5 61.70% 46.60% 67.90%
T.J. Leaf statistics - ‘16-17

Strengths

Offensive versatility

T.J. Leaf is a freshman but he has a quite versatile arsenal. He shot well from three-point range (in limited attempts) but was also good at attacking the rim off the dribble and scoring from 2-point range in a variety of ways. Turnarounds, putbacks, stepbacks and dunks - Leaf surprised a lot of people with his better-than-average athleticism and first-jump bounce. He keeps the ball high on offensive rebounds like Denver’s own Nikola Jokic and is able to throw it back in the hoop with relative ease even in traffic. He’s not the longest or fastest player but his effort on offense provided him with some very efficient bucket opportunities, and he converted.

Passing acumen

Leaf is a good passer and offensive initiator from the top of the key. He’s shown aptitude for running a drive-and-kick game to find open shooters and for hitting cutters over the top of the defense. From a Nuggets perspective, the offense they run would fit him very well. He’s not afraid of moving or passing, and has faith in his own dribble (too much faith, really) as a willing cog in a movement offense rather than simply a catch-and-shoot forward.

Willing rebounder

One of the problems with stretch-four types is their normal weakness in rebounding, but Leaf doesn’t suffer here. He crashes the boards at both ends and is not afraid of mixing it up for tip-ins or defensive taps. Watching him dart from the three-point line to the offensive glass is a joy, and an indicator of his ability to compensate for his lack of strength.

Weaknesses

NBA strength and athleticism

Leaf gets pushed around, plain and simple. It’s not necessarily a frame problem - he isn’t a skinny rail, he just hasn’t found his man-strength yet and may not get it on a fairly narrow frame. He gets shoved around on attempted box-outs and falls back to soft hooks on offense when he can’t get post position against just-adequate college players. It helps that he does have that crafty offensive game, and Jokic definitely showed last year that with the right offensive skills you don’t have to be the strongest post player to get great results, but right now it’s an issue. Combine that with a lack of footspeed and it may get harder for him on both ends in the NBA.

Defense

Directly related to the first issue. At this point, Leaf is not strong enough to hold position against college players let alone NBA frames. He also doesn’t have the foot quickness to defend on the perimeter. With an average length for his height he’s also not a shot-blocking threat as he gives ground. I wouldn’t say he’s good at any particular aspect on the defensive end, and that creates problems with his upside projection. Those issues might limit him to a bench role.

Unproven shooting

Leaf posted a good percentage from three but on very few attempts. His free throw percentage is in the high-60s. A stretch-four that doesn’t even shoot two three-pointers a game is definitely a projection pick. Many of his looks from the perimeter were open thanks to UCLA’s ball-movement (and Lonzo Ball in general). How he’ll deal with defensive pressure in his face and a deeper arc are questions for workouts and shot gurus. The Nuggets had Leaf in for a workout at the beginning of June (see the video below) so they have a good idea what they’re looking at.

June 9 workout #2

Posted by Denver Stiffs on Friday, June 9, 2017

Fit with the Nuggets

I’ll let Adam Mares take this one:

All of the problems Denver currently has on defense would be exacerbated by Leaf. He’s not big or strong enough to play the backup 5 but isn’t athletic enough to be the starting 4 - not without the Nuggets hemorrhaging points on defense like there’s a Black Friday run on them.

Their offensive collaborations as crafty paint players who can both pick and pop would be entertaining, but I can’t see Denver going that route with Leaf - certainly not unless they are moving back to select him. And since the Nuggets were adamant that they did not have room for the 20th pick in the draft just a few months ago (when they gave it a Viking funeral and pushed it into the Portland harbor) it doesn’t make a lot of sense to try to trade down and get Leaf now. Coherence is a tough path to follow though, and it’s always possible the Denver front office changes its mind.

Projected draft spot

SB Nation - 14

Draft Express - 20

Sporting News - 22

CBS Sports - 21 (both)

Final thoughts

This is another one of those, “how does a player fit next to Jokic?” questions. In the absence of Jokic, I can absolutely see adding T.J. Leaf to the roster. He has certain skills that can be NBA-caliber and at only 20 has plenty of time left to grow his game. But next to Jokic the Nuggets can’t really add another lesser player in the same vein. Counting on Leaf as a future starting power forward hampers Denver’s ability to mitigate Jokic’s weaknesses and makes it easier to attack its front court. It’s a hard sell.

Alec Peters and T.J. Leaf are both power forward types who struggle on defense but are aiming for the Ryan Anderson power forward model for the new NBA. Peters is projected to go in the middle of the second round because he’s two years older than Leaf - but he’s also the far more proven shooter. I’m not against adding Peters in the second with this skillset but Leaf’s upside doesn’t mesh with Denver’s immediate needs and doesn’t maximize Denver’s first round draft slot.

A Jokic-led offense should be able to provide most players with an optimal offensive environment, and Leaf’s deficiencies on the other end of the court and his inability to be Jokic’s backup or provide a change of scheme or wrinkle makes it hard for me to buy in on Leaf at #13.