It turns out TJ Leaf’s decision to declare for the NBA draft did indeed deserve less skepticism than that of UCLA classmate Ike Anigbogu – just not for the reasons we thought.
Both UCLA freshmen were selected by the Indiana Pacers in Thursday’s NBA draft. Leaf was the 18th overall pick and Anigbogu, a projected first-rounder, slipped to the 17th pick of the second round, 47th overall.
Concern about Anigbogu’s surgically repaired knee was reportedly the cause for the 6-foot-10, 252-pound center’s slide nearly an entire round later than his projections. There was little mention of his knee while Anigbogu was weighing his options after the season, which was understandable considering his meniscus surgery on Oct. 25 was minor enough for him to return to game action Nov. 25.
A sprained foot shelved Anigbogu for the only other game he missed the remainder of the season, a March 17 first-round NCAA tournament contest. In other words, he played four months of college basketball without knee issues only for concern to crop up shortly before the NBA draft.
Leaf’s night at Barclays Center was nearly the polar opposite of his former teammate. The 6-10 stretch-four was selected near his ceiling when the Pacers spent their first-round pick on a player who could be integrated into their rotation quickly.
Unlike Anigbogu, Leaf didn’t have to lean nearly as much on potential to drive his draft stock up. He was the leading scorer for the highest-scoring team in college basketball and his 61 percent shooting from the field was the second-best mark in the Pac-12 last season.
Only three players with skill sets similar to Leaf’s were selected ahead of him. Conversely, eleven players at his position were selected ahead of Anigbogu, who was projected as high as 19th overall by CBS Sports on the morning of the draft.
But Anigbogu’s tremendous upside likely saved him from slipping out of the draft entirely. Knee concerns on top of the skepticism surrounding a player who averaged 4.7 points and 4.0 rebounds in just 13 minutes per game during his lone season at UCLA were a potent combination.
But Thursday night’s disappointing result doesn’t unequivocally prove Anigbogu should have returned to UCLA for his sophomore season. He likely would have again played a reserve role behind rising senior Thomas Welsh, who is a legitimate NBA prospect himself. It’s difficult to picture an offensive-minded coach like UCLA’s Steve Alford providing a defensive specialist like Anigbogu a stage that would have vaulted him into the lottery had he returned for another season.
Quelling the costly concern about his knee is the one area where Anigbogu could have helped himself had he returned to UCLA.