TJ Leaf does not own a pair of Big Baller Brand sneakers. He is waiting for his former UCLA teammate, Lonzo Ball, to hook him up.
But even Leaf knows in a few months he will be able to afford the $495 sneakers, or $220 sliders, being produced under the Ball family’s brand.
Leaf, a 6-foot-10, 222-pound power forward, is projected to be selected in the middle of the first round. NBADraft.net has him going 15th to Portland, which would be one pick after the Miami Heat’s selection barring a lucky bounce of the ping pong balls in Tuesday’s lottery. If he is the 14th pick and if he becomes Miami’s next stretch four, Leaf will be about $6.5 million richer and would not need Ball’s charity.
Leaf did not schedule a workout in Miami while he was in Chicago last week for the NBA Draft Combine but said his representatives have spoken with the Heat and he expects one would be arranged before the July 22 draft. His game fits the NBA, and especially Miami’s style with his versatility and ability to stretch the floor.
“I feel I can score on three levels, which a lot of our bigs are not able to do,” said Leaf, who added he believes his basketball IQ is almost at a point guard’s level.
“I play hard on every possession. A lot of guys tend to take plays off. I will go at it every single play.”
Although playing in the post is not his strength, Leaf can score around the basket. But he really showed he has the range to be a stretch four.
Leaf led Bruins with 16.3 points per game and was second with 8.2 rebounds, helping guide the team to the Sweet 16 before falling to Kentucky. He shot 61.7 percent from the floor and 46.6 percent on 3 pointers.
One NBA scout told Bleacher Report he believes Leaf’s skills fit the league.
“Where the league is going now—playing smaller, skilled players at power forward rather than raw, skilled athletes has helped him,” the scout said. “He’s deceptively athletic. Got a lot of things going for him. The way the game’s going (it) plays to his strengths.”
Leaf, who said he is working mostly on his speed and strength, was overlooked entering college with one of the most celebrated classes in recent history. Ball – who beat out Leaf for California’s Player of the Year before the two became teammates at UCLA – Harry Giles, Josh Jackson, De’Aaron Fox, Jayson Tatum, Malik Monk, Dennis Smith Jr. and Markelle Fultz were the top rated players while Leaf drew an average national rating of 17th and was as low as No. 22 on Scout’s list.
And while those players all signed expecting to be ‘one-and-done’ college players, Leaf wasn’t as sure.
“I definitely was thinking it was a possibility but I wasn’t thinking I would be (at the combine) right now, that’s for sure,” Leaf said last week. “We won. Winning does breed success. At the end of the day that’s all we were worried about was winning and it got a lot of us here.”
Leaf’s father, like Ball’s, played basketball. But unlike LaVar Ball, Brad Leaf isn’t on an attention-seeking, headline-grabbing mission to promote his brand and his son.
Brad Leaf, who went to Evansville and was drafted in the 7th round by the Pacers in 1982, played professionally in Israel and coached his sons at Foothill Christian School just east of Los Angeles. TJ was born in Tel Aviv and moved to California when he was 2.
And when a decision was nearing as who whether Leaf would join his more celebrated members of the 2016 class in the 2017 NBA draft the family, which also included brother Troy, an assistant coach at an NAIA school in Santa Clara, convened.
“He knew that I’d have an opportunity to come to UCLA and make an impact and I was able to do that,” TJ said about his dad. “We sat down as a family and talked about it. We knew it was time for me. I think I’m ready for this.”