Is T.J. Leaf finally turning the corner? You were expecting a leaf pun, weren’t you?

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 8: T.J. Leaf #22 of the Indiana Pacers handles the ball against the Cleveland Cavaliers during a pre-season game on October 8, 2018 at Quicken Loans Arena, in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 8: T.J. Leaf #22 of the Indiana Pacers handles the ball against the Cleveland Cavaliers during a pre-season game on October 8, 2018 at Quicken Loans Arena, in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images) /
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After a forgettable rookie season and an indecisive Summer League, T.J. Leaf looks like he’s turning the corner in the Indiana Pacers’ preseason.

From the moment T.J. Leaf was drafted by the Indiana Pacers, he wasn’t a fan favorite. All the Tyler Hansbrough 2.0 jokes and “LOL PACERS DRAFTED A WHITE GUY” jokes were flying.

A forgettable first season — 2.9 points and 1.5 rebounds in 8.7 minutes a game — did nothing to win over fans, even if he was shooting 42.9 percent from deep in his limited opportunities. His 12.5 points and 5.5 rebounds in the Las Vegas Summer League didn’t change anyone’s mind, either.

But so far in the preseason, he looks like a new player. A stat line of 11.7 points and 7.7 rebounds starting in place of an injured Thaddeus Young hardly tells the whole story, but Leaf is more physical and more in tune with his teammates than ever before. Despite fitting in with the starters, he is scoring with less help from his teammates as well compared to his rookie season.

He is less beholden to the whims of his teammates and is putting himself in position to make an impact. He is rebounding the ball more in numbers and percentage. Leaf is scoring more by getting out in transition and placing himself more in the paint.

It’s preseason, of course, but this isn’t what we saw from Leaf in the past. He often looked lost on defense and a one-trick pony of offense. He guarded Chris Paul on the perimeter without getting metaphorically pants’d, and if fact, blocked the shot.

None of this proves he suddenly became a starting quality player, but it is significant progress for the second-year power forward.

With the risk of losing so many veterans next summer, Indiana needs to develop their younger players.  However, with playoff aspirations, Indiana can’t just throw out players in a trial by fire with the results being damned.

But Leaf’s play with Indiana starters — if it transfers into similar results in the regular season — means the Pacers can put T.J. out there for more than garbage time.

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If coach Nate McMillan threw Leaf out on the floor now, the former UCLA Bruin earned his opportunity. Leaf’s at least earned the change to sink or swim once the games count.

That’s a lot more than we could say about T.J. a year ago. While mid-first round picks aren’t really called ‘busts,’ it was easy to look at several players taken after him, former Indiana Hoosier OG Anunoby in particular, and wonder why the Pacers picked Leaf. Sure, he could shoot, but he wasn’t doing anything else to keep himself on the court.

It’s preseason NBA basketball, but for those waiting for T.J. Leaf to turn the corner and at least pass the “Looks like an NBA player” test, that moment finally arrived.

Leaf’s work on his body as well as simply having a year to get used to playing NBA-level basketball is starting to show. Last year he looked like a kid, but now he is beginning to get comfortable on the court.

Next. Pacers playing a waiting game with Thaddeus Young. dark

A few preseason games won’t stop the complaints, but they’ve certainly gotten quieter for the time being.