UCLA’s other freshman is living his dream
Leaf ’s one season with the Bruins convinced him that he was ready for the NBA.
NEW YORK — On Thursday night at Barclays Center, a UCLA freshman will hear his name called, surrounded by his family and the people closest to him, ready to embark on a lifelong dream. No, not that one. This one is forward TJ Leaf, who is expected to be a mid-to-late first-round selection. Another one-anddone player out of UCLA this year, albeit the less-talked-about one.
“I mean, I guess he was kind of in the shade a little bit, but to me he wasn’t,” said Lonzo Ball, the UCLA one-and-done freshman on whom the most attention has centered this draft season. “I love everything I got to do with him on the court, and I’m proud of him.”
Said Leaf: “This is what I’ve been working for my whole life. Just knowing a lot of my dreams are going to come true is extremely exciting. I’m anxious to see where I end up.”
Born in Israel, Leaf grew up near San Diego. About a year ago, his life included basketball, the beach and fishing. And a local chicken wing place he can’t even remember the last time he visited.
UCLA coach Steve Alford might have known Leaf ’s future even before he did. Alford told Leaf, when he was recruiting him out of Foothills Christian High in El Cajon, that he had the talent to leave after just one year in college. Before long, Leaf believed it himself.
He became an important part of UCLA’s turnaround, from a 15-17 record in 2015-16 to 31-5. He meshed well with Ball, led the team with a 16.3 points-per-game average and shot well from beyond the three-point line.
“On the court he’s a big man that’s a guard pretty much,” Ball said. “It kind of meshed with my game well because he runs the floor all the time. We had a good chemistry on the court.”
Since UCLA’s season ended, Leaf attended the NBA draft combine and has been to 11 workouts. He’s worked on adding strength to his 6-foot-10, 225-pound frame, while also improving his eating habits.
“You just gotta keep your body as clean and healthy as possible,” Leaf said. “Everyone says you can’t put bad stuff in a Corvette or Ferrari. It’s really true. You have to take care of your body. You’ve got to eat a lot of calories but you have to eat clean calories.”
As with many players in his range, Leaf shrugged when asked where he thinks he’ll go. There’s too much uncertainty in the second half of the first round.
“You kind of get a sense of [what teams like you] but the draft is so crazy, especially right now with all these trades happening,” Leaf said. “You don’t even know who’s going to have picks. It’s just really, it’s exciting. We’ll just see what happens.”
TJ LEAF led UCLA in scoring, averaging 16.3 points a game for the 31-5 Bruins.