T.J. Leaf’s abundant skills were on full display in UCLA’s upset of Kentucky
Genetics suggested that T.J. Leaf might play shooting guard or, maybe if he was an outlier, small forward.
His father stands 6-3 and his mother 5-7. His brother Troy was about 6-1 as a senior guard who starred at Azusa Pacific. There was another brother who was 5-10 and a sister who was 5-7.
None of which explains how UCLA had a 6-foot-10, 225-pound power forward with “Leaf” stretched across the back of his jersey who dominated top-ranked Kentucky on Saturday at Rupp Arena. He dribbled with the surehandedness of a point guard, shot like a three-point specialist and powered his way toward the basket for dunks like someone 50 pounds heavier.
“He killed us,” Wildcats Coach John Calipari said of Leaf’s 17-point, 13-rebound, five-assist, one-block, one-steal performance during the No. 11 Bruins’ 97-92 triumph.
It wasn’t an exaggeration. Leaf dispensed some hardwood humiliation against Kentucky’s ballyhooed freshmen. He scored the game’s first points when teammate Lonzo Ball found him cutting toward the basket for a layup and was there to help apply the finishing touches when the Wildcats tried to rally.
He sparked UCLA’s 11-2 surge to start the second half with a fadeaway baseline jumper and a dunk. He drove the baseline for another dunk that gave the Bruins (9-0) a 14-point advantage, their largest of the game. He played through getting smacked in the face. When he missed a couple of shots in the final minutes, he shrugged and found teammate Thomas Welsh for two baseline jumpers that essentially sealed the outcome.
By the time it was over, the Bruins’ second-leading scorer, second-leading rebounder and second-most-celebrated freshman had emerged as their unquestioned leading man amid their greatest victory in years.
“He’s probably the most skilled four man maybe in the country and because of a guy like Lonzo he kind of gets overlooked, but he’s a huge piece to what we do,” UCLA shooting guard Bryce Alford said. “He helped us break the press; we were getting pressured all night and he helped us with that, obviously made big shots, rebounded his butt off all night and he presented problems for them all night that I don’t think they’ve seen yet.”
Leaf said his favorite play was the fadeaway jumper he made, something he’s increasingly used as part of a diversified offensive arsenal. Dribbling and spot-up shooting have long been strengths for someone who grew up figuring he would probably be a guard like his brother Troy, who is now an assistant coach at the Master’s University in Santa Clarita.
Putting one foot in front of the other, now that became a problem after Leaf sprouted to 6-3 during the summer going into his freshman year at El Cajon Foothills Christian High.
“I could hardly walk, my knees were killing me and even after my freshman year, my knees were unbelievably painful,” Leaf recalled.
He grew another five inches or so by the time he was a sophomore and has added one more inch since then. The remaining growth has been in his game, Leaf adding a big man’s skill set to go with the talents he had developed as a youngster.
“Once I grew a little bit more and got my coordination back from growing,” Leaf said, “it was kind of like I put everything together.”
UCLA forward Gyorgy Goloman (14) begins to celebrate after the Bruins upset the Wildcats in Lexington, Ky., on Saturday.(Joe Robbins / Getty Images)
A: Based on the lottery odds, with just a 0.5-percent chance of the No. 1 pick and 1.8-percent chance of one of the first three selections, it likely will leave the Heat at No. 14. Among those expected to be available in that range are UCLA forward T.J. Leaf (pictured), Cal forward Ivan Rabb, Wake Forest power forward John Collins, Duke guard Luke Kennard, Duke forward Harry Giles, Gonzaga center Zach Collins, Indiana forward OG Anunoby, Creighton center Justin Patton, and possibly Florida State forward Dwayne Bacon, among others.(James Crisp / Associated Press)
Kentucky guard Malik Monk reacts after UCLA scores another basket in the second half.(Joe Robbins / Getty Images)
UCLA guard Isaac Hamilton (10) shoots over Kentucky forward Derek Willis during the second half.(James Crisp / AP)
UCLA guard Isaac Hamilton drives to the basket against Kentucky forward Bam Adebayo during the second half.(Joe Robbins / Getty Images)
UCLA guard Lonzo Ball has his reverse layup challenged by Kentucky forward Wenyen Gabriel (32) during the first half.(James Crisp / Associated Press)
UCLA Coach Steve Alford gives instructions to his players during the first half of the game against Kentucky.(Joe Robbins / Getty Images)
UCLA guard Bryce Alford shoots over Kentucky guard De’Aaron Fox during the first half.(Joe Robbins / Getty Images)
Kentucky Coach John Calipari argues with an official in the first half of the game against the UCLA.(Joe Robbins / Getty Images)
Kentucky guard Isaiah Briscoe (13) shoots after driving down the lane against UCLA guards Bryce Alford, left, and Lonzo Ball as well as center Thomas Welsh, right, during the first half.(James Crisp / Associated Press)
UCLA guard Lonzo Ball sets up the offense while guarded by Kentucky guard Malik Monk during the first half.(James Crisp / Associated Press)
UCLA guard Bryce Alford (20) tries to block a shot by Kentucky guard De’Aaron Fox during the first half.(James Crisp / Associated Press)
Bruins center Thomas Welsh looks to pass against the defense of Kentucky forward Bam Adebayo during the first half.(Joe Robbins / Getty Images)
Kentucky forward Isaac Humphries (15) looks for an opening between UCLA forward Ike Anigbogu, left, and guard Aaron Holiday (3) during the first half.(James Crisp / Associated Press)
Looking at his family and then seeing himself leads to only one conclusion.
“Yeah, I’m a freak,” Leaf said with a laugh. “I mean, it’s great. I love it. God blessed me with height. You don’t have to be blessed with height to be successful at basketball, but it definitely helps in a lot of areas.”
Leaf is averaging 17.2 points and 9.4 rebounds per game, numbers that surely impressed the scouts from 19 NBA teams — including the Lakers — who attended UCLA’s game against Kentucky. Unlike Ball, who has basically declared he will be in Westwood for only one season, Leaf said he would evaluate his professional prospects this spring before deciding whether to come back as a sophomore.
Bruins fans might want to catch the duo while they can, the pass-first point guard and the power forward whose first loves on the court are many.
“He can do it all,” Ball said. “He’s a versatile four man, he can stretch the floor, he can bring it up, he can shoot the three, catch lobs, hit free throws, there’s not much that he can’t do.”
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