Can T.J. Leaf play his way into a role this season?


T.J. Leaf is making his NBA debut during a tumultuous time in Pacers history. In the midst of transition, turnover and Lance Stephenson, will Leaf be able to show what he can do?

Throughout the annals of NBA lore, there have been some pretty cushy rookie assignments. Look no further than last year for a great example. Patrick McCaw, the 38th pick from UNLV, found himself on the Golden State Warriors, playing spot minutes alongside Kevin Durant and Steph Curry. Suffice to say, T.J. Leaf is about to have a slightly different experience.

Leaf is leaving a high-profile UCLA squad to join up with this Pacers team, hoping the offensive success he had in college will help him solidify his place in the distinguished ranks of NBA rotation players. Like anyone in the league, Leaf wants to play, but will there be room for him in the Pacers depth chart? Let’s look at it from a couple of angles.


The Numbers

Let’s look at it from this perspective: there are 48 minutes for a power forward to play in any NBA game. Yes, the NBA is trending toward blurred position lines, but I’m hesitant to apply any of that to Leaf just yet. I’d be very shocked if Nate McMillan pushed him to center at any point, and I don’t see him playing the three much either.

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The same is true with Thaddeus Young. When he’s on the court, it will most likely be at the four. Last season, Young played 30.1 minutes per game, and it’s doubtful that figure will decrease by much. It’s certainly possible that the Pacers will trade Young before season’s end, but in that scenario, Kevin Pritchard will want to show him off to the league, meaning he won’t be on the bench.

So that’s about 18 minutes a game for Leaf to potentially fight for. His competition? Second-year big man Domantas Sabonis, fresh off his last job passing out protective glasses for the Russell Westbrook eclipse. Sabonis played 20.1 minutes a game for the Thunder last season, which means he’ll have a tougher time increasing his role in Indiana.

Sabonis isn’t quite as position bound. He could potentially end up as a passable center, although I’m still dubious that McMillan will give the notion serious consideration this season. Still, it’s reasonable enough to think he might get three or four minutes there a night, no more.

He’ll still play most of his minutes at power forward, which means either him or Leaf is going to be disappointed in their playing time. Either McMillan splits the difference and plays them both 10-ish minutes per game or he picks one and saves the other for garbage time and nail-biters against the Canton Charge in Fort Wayne.


Youth/Player Development

Let’s put aside all the numbers and the law of conservation of minutes and look at this from another angle. The Indiana Pacers are in no position to be winning a lot of games this season. Their peak is just a light in the distance. Leaf has the potential to someday make that light shine brighter, and Thaddeus Young, great as he is, does not. From that perspective, chaining Leaf to the bench or banishing him to Ft. Wayne would be doing a disservice to the 2020-21 Indiana Pacers.

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There is a difference between outright tanking and prioritizing players who represent your future, and should the Pacers come to understand that difference this season, T.J. Leaf could see his role increase. Granted, Nate McMillan isn’t guaranteed that he’ll still be coaching next season, let alone in 2021, so he might not see things the same way.

Leaf’s defensive struggles are all but assured. However, he’s got real talent on the offensive side of the ball. He’s a talented scorer from just about anywhere on the court, so he shouldn’t have much trouble slotting into any lineup and taking what he’s given. On the glass, he’s not going to be Kevin Love, but he might surprise opposing teams every now and then. Essentially, he’s worth a shot.

Obviously you can’t just reduce Young’s minutes to zero. It would crater any trade value he might have, and it’s also just a crappy thing to do to a guy who’s still really good. What McMillan could do is shave off a few minutes here and there to get him between 22 and 25 per game. That way, there’s room for Leaf to figure things out, but no one is getting screwed over.

The real solution would be to move on from Young, but that’s a whole other can of worms and a different article.

Ultimately, we’ll have to wait and see if Leaf gets much of a chance this season. I hope he does, but I’m not holding my breath. Indiana has put a lot of faith in Sabonis and his fellow Oklahoman Victor Oladipo, so it would make sense to give both of them every opportunity to succeed. At the end of the day, only five guys can be on the court at a time.

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No matter what, though, my guess is Leaf’s hair will be coiffed and ready.