Israel-Born UCLA Big Man TJ Leaf Is Much More Than Just Lonzo Ball's Co-Star

Greg CouchNational ColumnistMarch 7, 2017

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 25: TJ Leaf #22 of the UCLA Bruins looks on during the National Anthem before taking on the USC Trojans during a NCAA Pac12 conference college basketball game at Galen Center on January 25, 2017 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Leon Bennett/Getty Images)
Leon Bennett/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — One day, people will look back at the surprise emergence of TJ Leaf and realize he was in the picture all along.

Maybe he wasn't in the front row when they were shooting the team photo at the McDonald's All-American game last year. Hard to get anyone's attention with Josh Jackson, De'Aaron Fox, Jayson Tatum and Malik Monk around. But look carefully: He's there in the background.

And maybe his picture wasn't in the California papers when Mr. Basketball was announced last year. Lonzo Ball's was. Of course. The Lonzo Ball. But take a look at the voting numbers, and guess who finished second.

One NBA Western Conference scout says his team was aware of Leaf back then but wasn't "high on him." And now? "Now, I could see him just outside the lottery. Top 15, 16. But I could also see him being 27, 28."

The point is: He's in the picture. And now, people are seeing him in it.

So much so that as UCLA heads into the Pac-12 tournament this week, Leaf is the biggest story, not Ball. His sprained ankle, suffered last week, gave the third-ranked Bruins a big scare, though he's expected back in time for Thursday's quarterfinal.

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 1:  TJ Leaf #22 of the UCLA Bruins is helped off the court after he was injured in the first half of the game against the Washington Huskies at Pauley Pavilion on March 1, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Once
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

So much so that as he comes to the end of his freshman year at UCLA, Leaf can claim that special label—"one-and-done player"—if he wants.

"I think just his overall production [has proved what he can be as an NBA player]," the scout says. "He scores very efficiently, and he's rebounded at a high level. Anytime a guy does that in both areas, you have something to talk about.

"Where the league is going now—playing smaller, skilled players at power forward rather than raw, skilled athletes—has helped him. He'd deceptively athletic. Got a lot of things going for him. The way the game's going plays to his strengths."

What's the production look like? Without much attention, the 6'10", 225-pound Leaf has become UCLA's second-leading scorer (16.3 points per game) and rebounder (8.4) as the Bruins have returned to national prominence, not to mention the national championship picture.

The focus has been on Ball, and that's deserved. But Leaf's story is not just what everyone writes—that he has been hidden by Ball's spotlight. Instead, Leaf has been hidden somewhat by design.

"He's just a humble kid and not all into beating his chest and telling everyone how good he is," says Leaf's brother, Troy, who is an assistant coach at Master's University, an NAIA school in Santa Clarita. "He's all about going about his business."

It's a reminder, and a lesson the Leaf family provides: You don't have to be a superstar before you're any good.

While Ball—and his brothers—are the product of their father, LaVar, and his attention-getting approach to being a basketball family, the Leaf family went about it completely differently. TJ and Troy were shaped by their dad, Brad—a longtime pro in Israel and his sons' high school coach at Foothills Christian—with tough workouts in a tiny gym.

"Boy, did they have to have thick skin," Brad Leaf says. "Ninety-nine percent of the time, they didn't bring it home with them, which is amazing. Both of my boys made it so much easier for me the way they reacted."

This isn't to knock the Ball approach, as they've had a lot of success while making every day of their lives a family basketball outing. It's just to show there are other ways.

Ball was a superstar, a player everyone watched, by the time he was in high school. Leaf's big moment, according to his father, came at the expense of the spotlight and attention, when he played on the under-18 Israel national team.

"It grew me up a lot, for one," says Leaf, who was born in Tel Aviv while his dad played there and moved to California when he was two. "Not having any family there, being in a different culture, not knowing anybody going in—and a lot of [the other players] speak a different language—it grew me up a lot culture-wise and maturity-wise. But it was awesome being there, where I'm from, and just having a good time.

"And I met a lot of good people there. So I talk to them all the time. It was just a fun trip, and I'd love to do it again."

Feb 23, 2017; Tempe, AZ, USA; UCLA Bruins guard T.J. Leaf (22) against the Arizona State Sun Devils at Wells-Fargo Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Brad Leaf says his son leaves out a few details about the trip. Like most of the important ones.

"Yeah, yeah. I'm not so sure he wanted to do that," Brad Leaf says. "He was an obedient son; let's put it that way. I had to twist his arm a bunch, and every other part of his body."

It was the summer after Leaf's junior year of high school, which Brad Leaf described as the time when top players go to all-star games and build national profiles and raise their national rankings. He says for years his connections with Israel basketball had asked him to send TJ, but he hadn't felt the time was right.

He knew how tough it would be for his son, even if just over several weeks.

"He had a bunch of college offers already—a ton of offers," Brad Leaf says. "I just thought it would be right for his maturity and development, and he did come back different. It was from the mentality there and traveling the world. They took everyone's cellphones away. I went and watched him, but they wouldn't let any of the parents stay in the same hotel as the guys on the team.

"A lot of people in the States couldn't understand why we'd sent him there then. I was getting a lot of negativity, and I could hear it. But it was like...he was treated like a pro over there. They traveled all over the world. They played games in Russia, Bulgaria, Israel, Tel Aviv. They'd work out. Nine games in 11 days. They didn't speak English in the huddles. That was a heck of a commitment he made."

It was a boot camp of basketball, or a summer intensive. And Brad Leaf said his son came back stronger, better and far more confident. He came back a man. Troy Leaf said the trip "kicked up" his brother's work ethic—that he came back with the determination no one would ever outwork him again.

Brad Leaf disagrees with much of how basketball players are handled and developed in Israel, but he also knows he, too, became a man playing basketball there.

After graduating from the University of Evansville in 1982, Brad Leaf was selected in the seventh round of the NBA draft by the Pacers. Then he was cut. He found playing in Israel more attractive than playing in the CBA and says he moved "two or three weeks later." His girlfriend—and future wife—followed a year later.

"I just wanted to play basketball," he says. "No, it was not the safest place in 1982, but I didn't care. I think I was too naive to be scared. Hey, I was still playing basketball."

Brad Leaf remembers being in his hotel room when sirens went off and having to put on a gas mask. He says players were warned their contracts would be voided if they fled. But he says they loved it there and stayed for 17 years.

Feb 23, 2017; Tempe, AZ, USA; UCLA Bruins guard T.J. Leaf (22) against the Arizona State Sun Devils at Wells-Fargo Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

It took Leaf only weeks to change. The knock on him has been that he isn't tough enough under the basket. But that doesn't seem to be an issue anymore.

Still, he's 6'10", a forward/center playing on the perimeter instead of under the basket.

"I think I'm just a new look," Leaf says. "Definitely a lot of guys have done things similar to what I do. A lot of times, the bigs are shooters now. We see that in the NBA. I think it's a [European style]. Playing over there, you see a lot of bigs who can shoot, pass, do intangibles."

That's exactly how his dad taught him, he says, "instilling all the basics: shooting, dribbling, passing."

Leaf says his dad taught him that the more things he can do, the more likely he'll be able to handle different situations that arise.

One NBA exec tells Bleacher Report that Leaf has an ability to jump quickly and that while he dominated under the basket in high school, he has proved he can shoot jumpers, too. Now, he needs to extend his range a little to adjust to the NBA three-point line.

UCLA coach Steve Alford, meanwhile, says, "We always knew he could pass, always knew he was unselfish. But being your starting 4-man, if you'd have told me he would have a 2-to-1 [assist-to-]turnover ratio, no, I wouldn't have believed that.

"He's the [second-]leading scorer; he's just so skilled. And his dad understands basketball at a high level."

Leaf says he isn't surprised by his production, but Troy Leaf says that while he knew his brother was good, "I don't think anybody expected these percentages or that he'd average these points. But let's be honest: It's helping him, too, that Lonzo is there. He isn't being double- and triple-teamed anymore like he was in high school."

TUCSON, AZ - FEBRUARY 25:  Lonzo Ball #2 of the UCLA Bruins celebrates alongside TJ Leaf #22 during the final moments of the second half of the college basketball game against the Arizona Wildcats at McKale Center on February 25, 2017 in Tucson, Arizona.
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Yes, Ball is helping Leaf, but Leaf is helping Ball, too.

The two have become close friends. And Troy Leaf says it doesn't bother his son even a little that Ball spent most of the season getting all the attention. He knew what to expect when he joined the Bruins and could have gone to a different college if it was going to bother him.

So UCLA might just be back. Ball's father openly guaranteed a national championship in Lonzo's first and only year in college. And if he's right, we'll surely see photos of Ball cutting down the nets.

But look closely. And don't be surprised if someday people view pictures of the celebration and say, "Hey, you won't believe who's hugging Lonzo."

    

Greg Couch covers college basketball and football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @gregcouch.

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