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Bulls Should Consider Drafting T.J. Leaf if They Need a Mirotic Replacement

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The former UCLA Bruin possesses impressive athleticism along with a great deal of offensive versatility.

NCAA Basketball: UCLA at Arizona State Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

About a year ago at this time, Chicago Bulls fans with their eyes set on the future could tell that the 2017 offseason was going to be an important one for the team’s bigs. Now that the time has arrived, nothing seems any clearer today than it did back then.

Nikola Mirotic and Cristiano Felicio are both set to become restricted free agents after each had their own version of an inconsistent season, yet both are still expected to receive interest from teams around the NBA. Robin Lopez appears entrenched in the starting center position, but the solution for who mans the four spot for Chicago is still very much up for debate given Bobby Portis’ own inconsistent play and the extremely strong free agency class at the position for this offseason.

The Bulls are in dire need of a floor-spacing big man that will help orchestrate the type of offensive system Fred Hoiberg desires to run. They not only need someone that can make shots from the perimeter, but also someone that can move the ball well through passing or capitalize on mismatches to get to the basket. If that player can help reinforce a ravenous effort to secure offensive rebounds—the one good element left of the Bulls’ current identity? Even better.

Fortunately for the Bulls, T.J. Leaf appears to be within striking distance at number sixteen in the 2017 NBA Draft.

Leaf was born in Tel Aviv, Israel before moving to the San Diego area at the age of 2 1/2. After a decorated high school career that saw him place second only to Lonzo Ball for the title of California Mr. Basketball, Leaf went on to attend UCLA alongside Ball for one season before declaring for this year’s NBA Draft. The tandem went on to form one of the most dynamic and potent offenses in all of college basketball last season, and by the end of the year many expected UCLA to make a run at the national title before falling to Kentucky in the Sweet Sixteen. Regardless, Leaf finished his lone year in college with extremely impressive and efficient offensive numbers, though his defense did leave something to be desired:

But there are many out there that still believe Leaf’s spectacular offensive performance in college had more to do with playing alongside the talent of Lonzo Ball than anything else. I can tell you with complete certainty that Leaf is not only a talent all his own, but may in fact be one of the most talented offensive players in this entire 2017 draft class.

What He’s Good At

The very first thing I noticed about T.J. Leaf is that he is so much more athletic than he appears to be at a glance. Leaf looks skinny, he doesn’t have a very large frame for someone at 220 lbs., and he only measured up to 6’10” at the NBA Combine; yet, this guy has some truly ridiculous springs in his legs (34.5” max vertical). I did not expect to see dunks like this from Leaf—or for that matter, really anyone playing the four spot—when I started looking at his tape:

That last example is a nice segway into breaking down the value that Leaf provides on offense, because even at this stage of his career he’s already a player that can do pretty much whatever is asked of him when his team is on the attack. Leaf ranked in the 89th percentile for finishing in transition among all players in college last season, and he’s got an extremely impressive handle for his size that allows him to take the ball the length of the court when needed. Leaf also had the second best shooting percentage from 3-PT range among all PF/Cs at 46.6% on 1.7 attempts per game, and this helped him finish in the 94th percentile among all players in pick & pop situations. Granted, having a facilitating savant like Lonzo Ball to initiate these plays certainly gave him a bit of a boost, but Leaf positions himself extremely well coming out of screens and does a great job of setting his feet for catch & shoot opportunities or action out of the triple-threat position:

But wait, there’s more! Leaf was also one of the very best players in college basketball last season on the low block, reaching the 96th percentile on post-ups. He’s got great footwork, deft touch on jump hooks using both hands, and he consistently does an excellent job of taking advantage of mismatches against smaller players when his offense forces the defense to switch:

Still not satisfied? Leaf is already an excellent passer from almost anywhere on the court. His average of 3.2 assists per 40 minutes last season came about because he can capably hit cutters from the high post or perimeter, makes the correct pass out of the low post when needed, and has excellent vision on the move given his comfort with handling the ball. He also averaged 11 rebounds per 40 minutes thanks not only to his leaping ability and reach (6’11” wingspan, 8’11” standing reach), but also his excellent instincts with regards to tracking down offensive rebounds:

Given all of this, I truly believe that Leaf is the most complete offensive big man in the entire 2017 NBA Draft. It is incredibly rare to find someone at Leaf’s size that has his combination of shooting touch, post skill, pick & roll/pop ability, passing sense, handle, and athleticism. This guy is going to be a very valuable offensive weapon for whatever team winds up with him. T.J. Leaf is absolutely everything any basketball junkie could want out of a modern day four-man... at least on offense.

Where He Needs Improvement

Now, readers might be thinking at this point, “how is this guy projected for selection within the Bulls’ draft window if he’s such an offensive juggernaut? Surely he must have some shortcomings? Is he really that bad on defense that it would cause him to drop out of the lottery range?”

Unfortunately, the answer appears to be “yes.” Leaf seems like he can be a serviceable rim protector right away when a few feet from the basket... and that’s about where his defensive upside ends at the moment. Given his NBA matchups in many situations will likely force him away from the basket, his shortcomings on defense are going to become very apparent very quickly, and he’s going to have to work hard to rectify them if he desires to stay on the floor:

Leaf possesses very little strength and will get posted up quite easily by bigger and/or more physical players all the way into the lane. He is a poor pick & roll defender, and that’s putting it nicely—heaven forbid he gets asked to stay in front of his man when forced to switch onto a smaller ball-handler. For all the basketball IQ he has on the other end of the court, he consistently seems delayed when reading the other team’s offensive movement and is frequently late or in the incorrect spot when trying to play help defense. He’s bad at hedging screens and is far too eager to switch early back onto his original assignment at the cost of letting the ball handler get into the lane.

Leaf is going to have A LOT of work to do in order to become a passable NBA defender, because his inability to really do anything well other than block shots under the basket is going to severly affect his ability to stay on the court. Whatever contributions he makes offensively aren’t going to mean much if the other team can just routinely abuse him for baskets on the other end of the floor. Getting him in an NBA strength and conditioning program should certainly help improve his resistance down low, but he’s going to need time and good coaching to refine his lackluster instincts on defense as a whole.

I will also say that there are a couple areas of Leaf’s offensive game that need improvement, but they shouldn’t hamper his ability to succeed on the professional level too badly. First, Leaf has a really nasty habit of trying to finish over contact on drives by hurling the ball at the basket with two hands. It looks like he’s executing a soccer throw-in when he tries to do this, and it looks hilariously bad, especially considering his touch around the basket in almost any other circumstance is pretty good.

The other issue appears to be his freethrow shooting, as he only got about four attempts at the line per 40 minutes in college and merely converted just under 68% of them. That’s baffling given Leaf shot 61.7% from the field overall and his aforementioned efficiency from long distance. I have to believe he’ll improve in terms of sinking the attempts that he does get at the charity stripe, but his lack of strength coupled with his shying away from physical play is going to severly reduce his ability to get there in the first place.

Why He Makes Sense for the Bulls

The biggest problem the Bulls have with Nikola Mirotic is that the guy is maddeningly inconsistent on a game-to-game basis outside of the month of March. One night, Mirotic will be knocking in threes from all over the perimeter, pump-faking and driving the lane for finishes at the rim, pulling down all sorts of boards; essentially doing everything one could ask from a modern-day four. A few days later he’ll likely be chucking up nine attempts from distance—making one or none of them—while constantly finishing possessions for Chicago without converting them into points and just generally stunting the movement of the offense. You never know what you’re going to get from Threekola, and any good games almost always require a high volume of looks in order for him to be successful.

T.J. Leaf, by contrast, is a hyper-efficient player everywhere on offense and almost always uses his diverse skill-set to make the correct basketball play in a given situation. The Bulls are absolutely desperate to get a player on offense that brings some consistency in all areas without needing to be a high-volume scorer, and that’s exactly what Leaf does. He’ll be an immediate high pick & roll/pop threat for Butler and whatever ball handlers the Bulls bring back next season, he’ll tear apart his mismatches in the post when the other team is forced to switch, he’ll keep the ball moving with great passing instinct, and he’ll continue to help with the Bulls’ assault on the offensive glass.

Hiding Leaf on defense is going to be tricky given Robin Lopez can’t be asked to do everything on that end. However, if Jim Boylen can help make him into even a slightly below-average defender, the positives he provides on the other end are going to far outweight his negatives on defense. Yes, many Bulls fans tried to make this rationale when the front office traded for Doug McDermott years ago, but Shooty McNickname had a far greater chasm to bridge in terms of his ability to guard wings than Leaf has to guard fours (though one certainly exists).

It’s so hard to make an accurate NBA comparison for T.J. Leaf. A lot of people enamored with him enjoy equating him to Kevin Love, but I think this is a somewhat lazy parallel given they are both UCLA guys. Looking at both of them coming out of school, Love was far stronger while Leaf is much more athletic and has a far superior handle. That being said, I do believe Leaf has the potential to become the same type of 17+ ppg scorer that Love eventually became because of how crazy efficient he was from all over the floor in college. The scoring is not going to come as easily for him right away, but as he gets stronger and adjusts to the speed of professional play, Leaf’s skill set figures to be one that translates to being a valuable cog in a high-level NBA offense. I’d say he’ll probably fall somewhere within the range of a rich man’s Nikola Mirotic and a slightly-impoverished man’s Kevin Love.

Leaf’s draft projections range from just outside the top ten all the way to just outside the top twenty, but there are certainly some teams in front of the Bulls that have their eye on him such as the Miami Heat at fourteen. Mirotic’s contract situation is still very much up in the air and heavily depends what offers he receives from other teams as a RFA, but if Leaf is available and the Bulls think Mirotic is going to be too expensive to retain, I certianly hope the front office snags Leaf at sixteen given the difficulty that will come with trying to fix that sort of hole in free agency. Again, there are plenty of stud suitors, but how many will want to play for the Bulls on a less-than-optimal deal? Leaf probably won’t be more than a key rotation player during his first year in Chicago given his defensive problems, but he is still nevertheless a guy that will immensely help the vastly needed modernization of the Bulls’ offense for years to come.