TJ Leaf was the most dynamic offensive weapon for the highest-scoring team in college basketball
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.
UCLA’s victory at then-No. 1 Kentucky on Dec. 3 was the Bruins’ signature win most of this season. The only one that may have surpassed it was a road win at Arizona nearly three months later.
Before Tuesday’s practice, Lonzo Ball and TJ Leaf promptly dismissed its December triumph in Lexington, KY – at least as it pertained to Friday’s matchup with second-seeded Kentucky in the Sweet 16.
“We’re both different teams right now,” Leaf said. “And the stakes are a lot higher. So it’s going to be a completely different game than the first one.”
Thirty-five games into its season, UCLA is better than it was nine games in. Naturally, a Kentucky team even more freshman-driven than UCLA is also considerably better, according to Ball.
One thing Ball and Leaf agree will be the same is the fast pace. UCLA outran Kentucky in the 97-92 win that snapped the Wildcats’ 42-game home winning streak. The Bruins’ 90.2 points per game make them the highest scoring team in the country. Kentucky isn’t far behind in ninth with 85.2 points per game. It figures to be another track meet on Friday at FedExForum in Memphis.
TJ Leaf (sprained ankle) is expected to play on Thursday when UCLA plays its first game of the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas.
TJ Leaf seems a near certainty to play in UCLA’s Pac-12 tournament opener on Thursday.
But even the freshman forward may not know how close to 100 percent he’ll be at that point. The Bruins’ leading scorer before he sprained his left ankle less than five minutes into UCLA’s win over Washington March 1 practiced with an ankle brace on Tuesday. But coach Steve Alford didn’t make it sound like he would be without restrictions.
“We’ll ease him back in (Tuesday),” Alford said before practice. “We’ll have a practice (Wednesday). But we fully anticipate him going on Thursday.”
Leaf was on the bench in a walking boot on Saturday for UCLA’s regular season finale against Washington State. He also said he would have played had it been an NCAA tournament game.
Long before his leading scorer went down with a sprained left ankle during last night’s 32-point win over Washington, UCLA coach Steve Alford pointed out the way his team suffers when TJ Leaf suffers.
TJ Leaf after spraining his ankle Wednesday night
It’s no coincidence that Leaf’s worst game of the season stands as UCLA’s worst loss. The freshman forward matched his season-low with eight points, posted his second-lowest shooting percentage and didn’t have an assist in UCLA’s Jan. 25 loss to USC. In losses to Oregon and Arizona, his numbers were well below the team-leading averages of 16.8 points and 8.7 rebounds with which he entered Saturday night.
There are only eight players in Alford’s regular rotation and Leaf’s back-up is the weakest of the group. The good news is junior GG Goloman isn’t a drop-off on the defensive end. The bad news is, he won’t come close to matching Leaf’s offensive contributions. The other good news is the most efficient offense in the country has several options to fall back on.
Also on the positive front, it’s possible the ankle injury isn’t particularly serious. Alford confirmed after the game that it wasn’t broken, just sprained. He said Leaf would be on crutches and in a boot, acknowledged how badly UCLA needs him back as soon as possible – but then he didn’t even rule him out for Saturday’s game against Washington State.
The UCLA basketball team unquestionably revolves around Lonzo Ball. But a case can be made that the Bruins’ fate is tied more closely to its other freshman star.
For example, during UCLA’s back-to-back losses to Arizona and USC, Leaf averaged 8 points and 6 rebounds. During the winning streak the Bruins stretched to six games with an 87-75 win over Arizona State last night, Leaf is averaging 19.5 points and 9.2 rebounds.
Leaf led UCLA with 25 points and nine rebounds against Arizona State on a night where Ball put a scare into the UCLA fan base when he landed on Isaac Hamilton’s foot trying to block a shot in the first half. After limping into the locker room, he returned before the end of the half and coach Steve Alford said Ball is expected to be fine for Saturday’s mammoth game at Arizona.
Ball’s four points last night represented his lowest total this season. But he impacts the game in so many ways – he had 11 rebounds and five assists last night – that he has been a significant factor in each and every contest this season. Ball was UCLA’s leading scorer in its loss to Arizona Jan. 21 and he still managed 15 points and 10 rebounds despite a season-high 7 turnovers in the loss at USC Jan. 25.