Tel Aviv born T.J. Leaf was picked by the Indiana Pacers in the first round of the NBA draft Thursday night, becoming the third Israeli to make it to basketball’s big leagues in the US.
Leaf was selected No. 18 in the first round of the draft, leaving UCLA after one year, where the power-forward was overshadowed by hype-machine Lonzo Ball despite leading the Bruins in scoring.
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.
“We loved it there. The people are great. I didn’t know if we’d ever come back,” Brad Leaf told the Los Angeles Daily News.
According to Tablet, the elder Leaf is not Jewish but was able to gain citizenship for him and his family thanks to questionable papers.
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.”
Assuming Leaf makes it to the court, he’ll join Israeli Omri Caspi, who was the first Israeli to join the NBA and currently pays for the Minnesota Timberwolves, on the hardwood. 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.