Tel Aviv-born T.J. Leaf on Sunday became the first Israeli national to play in the NBA playoffs, after the Indiana Pacers put him on court for the final three minutes of a win against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
For the Israeli-American, who turns 21 on Monday, the early birthday gift was largely symbolic, as he did not score or record any statistics in his brief time on court. His squad thrashed LeBron James’ team 121-87 to tie the overall series at 3-3.
Leaf scored a career high of 17 points back on October 20, but as the season progressed his time on court has been greatly reduced.
The power forward rookie was picked by the Indiana Pacers in the first round of the NBA draft last June. He was selected No. 18 in the first round of the draft, leaving UCLA college after one year.
Leaf was born in Tel Aviv and lived there the first two years of his life while his father Brad Leaf, who was also drafted by the Pacers in 1982 but never joined the team, played in the Israeli premier league.
Brad Leaf spent 17 years in Israel, playing for Maccabi and Galil Elyon and winning the league MVP award once.
According to Tablet, the elder Leaf is not Jewish but was able to gain citizenship for himself and his family thanks to questionable papers claiming that he was.
In 2015, T.J. Leaf played for the Israel national Under-19 team, an experience he said helped mature him.
“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,” he told Bleacher Report. “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.”
In making it to the NBA, Leaf had joined Omri Casspi, who was the first Israeli to join the NBA. Casspi was released by the Golden State Warriors shortly before the playoffs this year due to injury. Gal Mekel, who became the second Israeli in the league in 2013, lasted only a few months with the Dallas Mavericks and New Orleans Pelicans before going back to Israel.
“I’ve gotten a ton better,” Leaf told The Times of Israel last month. “I knew it wasn’t going to happen overnight. I’m playing with grown men with families for the first time. It’s a job, not just something you do. I’m looking forward to getting better.”