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TJ Leaf leaves UCLA for the NBA

TJ Leaf leaves UCLA for the NBA
UCLA forward TJ Leaf goes up for a dunk against Kent State on March 17. (Jamie Squire / Getty Images)

TJ Leaf and Lonzo Ball seemingly did everything together. The UCLA freshmen simultaneously conducted interviews, traded lighthearted verbal jabs and even once pretended to play baseball behind a throng of reporters talking to teammate Bryce Alford, Leaf throwing an imaginary pitch while Ball swung a foam roller.

The symmetry continued Thursday when Leaf announced on Twitter that he would follow Ball's lead by hiring an agent and declaring for the NBA draft.

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"This was a huge decision for me and my family," said Leaf, a 6-foot-10 power forward who averaged a team-leading 16.3 points per game last season while ranking second in rebounding with an average of 8.2. "It was definitely one of the hardest decisions of my life."

Unlike Ball, who announced his intentions to depart for the NBA only minutes after the Bruins' season ended last week with a loss to Kentucky in an NCAA tournament South Regional semifinal, Leaf appeared to be wavering, saying he loved UCLA "with everything in me."

Ultimately, the lure of potentially being one of the top dozen or so players drafted helped sway Leaf toward the NBA. He's been widely projected as being selected as high as late in the draft lottery, which encompasses the top 14 picks.

"Everybody likes him, he's on everybody's board and everybody's looking at him as a potential first-rounder, but I think it's probably a lot to be determined by who else comes out and who else shows well in tryouts," a scout for an Eastern Conference NBA team told The Times. "He does do some really good things, though."

UCLA Coach Steve Alford backed Leaf's decision to depart after a season in which he was one of the Bruins' most efficient players, making a team-best 61.7% of his shots and 46.6% of his three-pointers.

Leaf's impact on a team that went 31-5 and finished third in the Pac-12 Conference was perhaps best illustrated by his statistics in UCLA's wins versus its losses. He averaged 16.3 points and 8.3 rebounds in the Bruins' wins compared with 13.0 points and 6.2 rebounds in their losses.

"TJ had such a great season for us, and I completely support his decision to pursue his dream," Steve Alford said in a statement released by UCLA. "I'm proud of what he was able to accomplish this season.

"He brought so much to our team, both on and off the court, and we're certainly going to miss him. TJ has been an absolute joy to coach, and I know that all of us at UCLA will be excited to watch him continue to grow at the next level."

The loss of Ball and Leaf leaves two huge holes that the Bruins will try to fill with a recruiting class ranked No. 2 nationally. Freshman power forward Jalen Hill will likely take Leaf's spot in the starting lineup, but Ball's replacement could be dictated by whether point guard Aaron Holiday decides to follow his counterpart to the NBA.

Should Holiday leave, freshman Jaylen Hands would almost certainly take over as the starting point guard next season. Junior center Thomas Welsh and freshman center Ike Anigbogu also must decide whether they will return next season or declare for the draft.

Leaf seemed to genuinely enjoy all aspects of his stint as a college student and made the most of his time in the classroom, joining Ball and several other teammates on the honor roll for fall quarter.

"The fans were amazing and made for a great year," Leaf said Thursday. "The coaches were the best I've had, and I can't thank them enough, especially Coach Alford.

"I will always love my UCLA family so much, in particular the amazing teammates I had this past year. They are like brothers to me. This was the most fun year of basketball I've had in my entire life, and I will definitely miss it. But, I cannot wait to start my new journey."

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Twitter: @latbbolch

UPDATES:

6 p.m.: This article has been updated with more details about Leaf leaving UCLA.

3:15 p.m.: This article has been updated with comments from Leaf and Alford.

This article was originally published at 2:35 p.m.

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