Strengths: TJ Leaf was the best one-on-one player on the highest-scoring team in the country. Coupled with the freshman forward’s ability to run (and stretch) the floor, he was UCLA’s most dynamic offensive weapon. Surrounded by shooters and the best facilitator in college basketball, Leaf was in an ideal situation to succeed. But when he needed to create his own shot, he had abundant success scoring on anyone from anywhere. His 61.7 field goal percentage ranked fourth among all power five conference players and the 6-foot-10 freshman shot 47 percent from 3-point range, making him the best stretch four in college basketball aside from Arizona’s Lauri Markkanen.
Weaknesses: Leaf was plenty athletic and surprisingly physical on the defensive end, but he was very slow to adapt as a help defender. Most of Leaf’s defensive shortcomings were mental. He was slow to rotate, was consistently beaten on back-door cuts and generally had a difficult time keeping his head on a swivel. UCLA’s lack of perimeter defense put an unhealthy amount of pressure on UCLA’s big men, but it also exposed Leaf’s lack of continuity with his teammates on the defensive end.
Best moment: One of Leaf’s best halves of the season maintained UCLA’s elite status at a critical point in the season. The Bruins only lost five games, but nearly dropped their first two conference games. After 13 consecutive wins to begin the season, a last-second shot at Oregon cost them their Pac-12 opener. Leaf was the primary reason UCLA’s best season in nearly a decade wasn’t severely compromised by a loss in the next game to an Oregon State team that finished with a single conference win. In a surprisingly close game, he had 11 of his 21 points and seven of his 10 rebounds in the second half. UCLA led lowly Oregon State by two points with less than 10 minutes to play before pulling away for a 13-point victory.
Worst moment: Pauley Pavilion gasped in unison when Leaf went down with a severely sprained ankle in the penultimate game of the regular season. He missed just one game, but Leaf didn’t appear 100 percent in either of UCLA’s Pac-12 tournament games, including a semifinal loss to Arizona that affected its NCAA tournament seed. He looked much closer to being healthy despite wearing a brace on his left ankle in UCLA’s season-ending loss to Kentucky in the South Regional semifinal, but still appeared to show signs of favoring the ankle. The Bruins were banged up by the end of the season, but Leaf’s injury may be the most responsible for UCLA’s disappointing postseason.
Summary: Lonzo Ball rightfully deserves the most credit for UCLA’s turnaround season, but he couldn’t have done it without his freshman running mate. Leaf’s remarkable scoring ability and surprising athleticism were overshadowed all season, but he was impressive enough to likely make him a first-round draft pick in June. He was UCLA’s leading scorer, averaged a healthy 8.2 rebounds and played unselfishly despite having the most ability on the team to create his own shot. He even played above average individual defense and held his own in the lane against larger and more physical post players. Leaf was the prototypical stretch four for UCLA’s offense and it was apparent in the results.
Future outlook: Leaf has already declared for the NBA draft and announced he would hire an agent. He seems assured to go in the first round and may have even played himself into the lottery. Leaf may even be athletic enough to play small forward in the NBA, but he is only 19 and has a chance to gain the height and weight to be a dangerous stretch four who can shoot, run the floor and hold his own in the paint.