I’m very competitive and I love to win. I love to playmake and I’m going to make the right play. I will just get the ball flowing more than it already is here. —TJ Leaf
SALT LAKE CITY — If you believe mock drafts, UCLA power forward TJ Leaf will be long gone before the Utah Jazz even get a chance to consider him with the No. 24 pick, let alone the 30th selection of the NBA draft next week.
That didn’t deter the intriguing stretch-four prospect from agreeing to participate in a pre-draft workout with the Jazz.
The 20-year-old, who earned All-Pac-12 first-team honors as a freshman last season, said he and his agent are exploring options and organizations that would be best for him in the NBA, not just draft order.
“Obviously draft number’s a big deal as well, but if I drop a couple of places and go to a team with a perfect fit, that’s who we want,” Leaf said. “We see a team like this — great coach, great system — and I think I’d fit well here, so that’s why I scheduled this one.”
The 6-foot-10, 220-pounder showed great potential last season with the Bruins, averaging 16.3 points (46.6 percent from 3-point range) along with 8.2 rebounds and 2.4 assists.
Leaf was one of five finalists for the national Karl Malone Power Forward of the Year Award. He also has international experience, having excelled with Israel in the FIBA Europe U-18 Championships in Austria. (Leaf’s father, Brad, played professionally in Israel, and the NBA hopeful was born in Tel Aviv.)
The Jazz were very happy to get Leaf in their practice facility Sunday so they could work him out up close and personal and interview him, but it wasn’t an ideal situation. Utah brass wish Leaf’s agent would’ve allowed him to work out against a couple of other intriguing prospects who’ll likely be on the board when the Jazz pick twice in the late first round and perhaps when they go again twice in the mid-to-late second round.
Indiana’s Thomas Bryant and North Carolina’s Tony Bradley, both 6-foot-10 bigs, went against each other in the first pre-draft workout Sunday. That session also included wing possibilities PJ Dozier (South Carolina) and Wesley Iwundu (Kansas State) and point guard longshots Isaiah Briscoe (Kentucky) and Dylan Ennis (Oregon).
Leaf’s agent agreed to let him come to Utah for a solo workout, so he ran through drills by himself with Jazz assistant Tony Lang as four other prospects — Kentucky guard Dominique Hawkins, Central Michigan guard Marcus Keene (the nation’s leading scorer at 30.0 ppg), Louisiana Tech big Erik McCree and Virginia Tech big Zach LeDay worked out as a group in the afternoon session.
“We always like to see players play against players, not against coaches,” Jazz vice president of player personnel Walt Perrin said. “Sometimes you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do just to get players in. We want them in the gym, so we will for the most part give in to what they ask.”
Perrin said Leaf shot well in spot-up situations but didn’t do as well on the move. The Jazz like what they saw for the most part, though.
“For a one-and-0, it was a good workout,” Perrin said.
Leaf believes he could be a good addition to the Jazz, who’d love to have a versatile big who can stretch the defense alongside center Rudy Gobert. Trey Lyles showed glimpses of being that guy as a rookie, but he suffered through a rough second season. Perrin said Leaf is a better shooter than Lyles but that the third-year-to-be Jazz forward is a better ballhandler and playmaker.
“I can shoot the ball pretty well,” Leaf said, “but first and foremost I’m just a basketball player with a high IQ and I make the right play.”
Leaf believes his versatility as a power forward will translate well to the NBA.
“Being a playmaker and a winner,” Leaf said when asked what he’d bring to the Jazz. “I’m very competitive and I love to win. I love to playmake and I’m going to make the right play. I will just get the ball flowing more than it already is here.”
Leaf agreed that defense is something that he needs to improve on at the next level.
“If you want to get good at something you’ve got to keep working at it, and that’s what I’m doing,” he said. “I have no doubts that I’m going to become a good defender.”
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