February 22, 2020

Israeli-born T.J. Leaf makes a bit of history in NBA draft

T.J. Leaf

At the 2017 NBA draft, all eyes seemingly were on UCLA point guard Lonzo Ball, the passing wizard with the brash, headline-grabbing father, who was selected second overall by his hometown team, the Los Angeles Lakers.

But in Israel, knowledgeable fans were more interested in what would happen to one of Ball’s college teammates, the only Israeli-born player projected to hear his name called on draft night.

When the Indiana Pacers went on the clock in the first round with the 18th overall pick — a fortuitous number for any Jews watching — a little bit of history was made.

T.J. Leaf, a 20-year-old, 6-foot-10 freshman out of UCLA, became the second Israeli-born player to hear his name called by the commissioner and receive the coveted congratulatory handshake, during the June 22 draft, held in Brooklyn. He was born in Tel Aviv, where his father was playing professional basketball at the time.

In 2009, Omri Casspi, who currently is on the Minnesota Timberwolves, his sixth team, became the first Israeli-born player to be drafted. The only other Israeli to play in the NBA was Gal Mekel, who currently plays for Maccabi Tel Aviv. He had brief stints with the Dallas Mavericks and New Orleans Pelicans, but signed as a free agent and was not drafted.

Pacers president Kevin Pritchard told reporters at Leaf’s introductory press conference, held in Indianapolis the day after the draft, that he has high hopes for the young prospect.

“He works out three times a day; he’s committed to winning,” Pritchard said. “We feel like we got a top-10 pick in this kid, and when you’re picking 18, that’s pretty good. Whatever his ceiling is as a player, he’s going to get there.”

During his one and only season at UCLA, Leaf flourished, leading the Bruins in scoring with 16.3 points per game and helping them reach the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.

“He’s shown that he has a terrific skill set,” UCLA head coach Steve Alford said in a statement to the Journal. “The Pacers have a very talented young player coming into their program, and we can’t wait to watch him at the next level.”

Leaf’s father, Brad, also was selected by the Pacers decades earlier — in the seventh round of the 1982 NBA draft. He was cut during training camp but went on to have a successful career overseas, playing in Israel’s top league for 17 years.

“Brad was a very good ballplayer in Israel,” Israeli basketball legend Tal Brody said. “He did very well in leading his Galil Elyon team; just an excellent player in the league. The Israeli basketball world knows Brad for sure. Everybody liked him as a player and as a person. He had a very good career.”

T.J. is not Jewish but has dual citizenship. The Leafs moved back to the United States soon after T.J. was born, but he played for Israel’s under-18 junior national team in 2015, winning tournament MVP honors at an International Basketball Federation (FIBA) competition in Austria.

“Brad apparently worked with T.J. and
developed him into a very good player,” Brody said.

In an interview with The New York Times in February, Brad, who couldn’t be reached by the Journal, said his exposure to the European style of play favored in Israel inspired him to develop T.J. into an all-around player, not just a traditional back-to-the-basket big man.

“I just kept on having him play on the perimeter,” said Brad, who coached T.J. in pre-high school summer leagues and then at Foothills Christian High School outside of San Diego. “Guard skills — like over in Europe, like I was accustomed to.”

Brody, who forever will be revered in Israeli basketball circles for spurning the NBA to help grow the sport in Israel and leading Maccabi Tel Aviv to EuroLeague glory in the late 1970s, told the Journal that Brad’s legacy should help T.J. develop a following in Israel.

“The majority of people here in Israel probably don’t know T.J. himself or probably never saw him play, but there’s a percentage who love basketball and most likely watched some of his UCLA games at 2 or 3 in the morning,” Brody said. “But everyone knows his father very well. Once it was written in the papers here, they knew the name Leaf. A lot of people involved with basketball here are very excited to have a third player in the NBA.”