Meet the NBA’s Israeli-born rookie, a 6’10” forward named T.J. Leaf
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Meet the NBA’s Israeli-born rookie, a 6’10” forward named T.J. Leaf

While the 21-year-old still warms bench before becoming a regular starter for the Indiana Pacers, he dreams about one day repping for Team Israel in the Olympics

Indiana Pacers player T.J. Leaf's father also played for the Pacers before moving to Israel, where T.J. was born. (Courtesy)
Indiana Pacers player T.J. Leaf's father also played for the Pacers before moving to Israel, where T.J. was born. (Courtesy)

PHILADELPHIA — The future isn’t now for T.J. Leaf, the rookie forward of the Indiana Pacers, who, along with the more celebrated Omri Casspi of the Golden State Warriors, happens to be one of the only two native-born Israelis playing in the NBA.

Between needing to learn the ropes, become physically stronger, develop his game — and the fact the Pacers are doing surprisingly well this season — there just hasn’t been much of an opportunity for the California kid to play.

So when practice is over you’ll find him, along with the other Pacers benchwarmers, in a spirited half-court scrimmage. And during pregame warmups he’ll be bombing away from behind the 3-point line, then retreat to the weight room.

But once the whistle blows and the game gets underway, Ty Jacob Leaf (known to all simply as T.J.) essentially becomes a 6’10”, 236-pound cheerleader watching the action from the best seat in the house — and learning all the time.

“It’s definitely an adjustment, but it’s part of the process,” said Leaf, who has no memories of the first two years of his life in Israel, while his dad, Brad, was finishing up a 17-year playing career.

Indiana Pacers rookie T.J. Leaf. (Courtesy NBA)

“I’ve gotten a ton better. 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,” Leaf said.

He’s also looking forward to someday again playing for the country where he was born, just as he did in the 2015 under-18 European junior championships in Austria.

“We lost to Sweden in the finals,” Leaf, the tournament MVP, recalled painfully moments before the Pacers’ 101-98 win over the Philadelphia 76ers in which he never stirred from his spot on the bench. (Later in the week, Leaf played six minutes in a game in which he scored seven points.)

“We were up by three with 10 seconds left. Sweden hit a three and got an and-one and beat us. That sucked. Tamir Blatt, David Blatt’s son, was on that team. I was there training for maybe 2-3 weeks, mostly in Tel Aviv and some in the Galilee,” Leaf said. “I didn’t really know what to expect, but I loved every bit of it all.”

Ironically, that’s pretty much what Brad Leaf says about a land he knew little about when he arrived in 1982, having just been released by the same Pacers his son now plays for.

“There was really no connection,” said Brad, a shooting guard from Indianapolis who played college ball down the road at Evansville. That was where he met his wife, Karen and where the couple would often bring their four children to spend time with their grandparents during the summer.

“I went on a trip there. Somebody said ‘There is a job opening, and would you like to get it?’ I got cut by the Pacers, and two weeks later I was in Israel. I went over there at the end of ’82, during the [First] Lebanon War. I was in the north, so there was a lot of action going on,” Brad said.

Israeli-born NBA player T.J. Leaf has a strong offense, but is working on his defensive game. (Courtesy)

“I went for a year, and a year, and another year, then got married and had kids. My career was going pretty good. The people were fantastic. They were like family. So I kept staying,” said Brad.

Leaf wound up staying in Israel until 1999, playing 12 years for Hapoel Galil Elyon and later Maccabi. While there, despite not being Jewish, he learned enough Hebrew to get by, while Karen went to ulpan [immersive Hebrew language classes]. In addition, his daughter Talia, now a college senior, and T.J. were born there.

But they all grew up in El Cajon, California, outside San Diego, where Brad runs a construction company, in addition to being the coach at Foothills Christian High.

Somewhere along the way, Brad realized his star player and youngest son wasn’t just an ordinary ballplayer.

“I think it was after his junior year in high school I thought he could be something more than a high school and college player,” said Brad, who has been back to his old Indiana stomping grounds three times this season to watch T.J., and looks forward to the Pacers’ upcoming trip to Los Angeles.

“He can shoot, but I really don’t know what kind of player he’s going to be. He’s starting to put on weight — the kid’s going to be 250 [lbs] in a year and a half — but I don’t know what direction his career is going to go,” Brad said.

Israeli-born Indiana Pacers rookie T.J. Leaf goes up for a slam dunk. (Courtesy)

Pacers coach Nate McMillan likes what’s he’s seen so far from Leaf, the 18th pick in the 2017 draft. That came following a spectacular freshman season at UCLA where T.J. average d 16.3 points and 8.2 rebounds while being named an Honorable Mention All-American.

“He’s a young talent with a lot of potential,” said McMillan, whose 40-29 club has moved into third place in the wide open Eastern Conference. “His offense is ahead of his defense at this stage, but I like his basketball I.Q.

“It’s his rookie year, his development year. Now that we’re in the race we need to depend more on veterans. I think he’s a four [power forward] who can stretch the floor,” said McMillan. “He needs to get a little stronger but we’ve seen some growth from him.”

Leaf has, too. “I felt I was doing my thing during stretches of the season,” he said.

He’s averaging 2.8 points and 1.4 rebounds, with a career high of 17 points back on October 20 — though he has only played in eight games and scored nine points since January.

“But we’re third in the East right now, so I can’t complain,” Leaf said. (Since this conversation the Pacers have dropped to a tie for fourth.) “I’m putting the work in. I’m getting stronger. I knew I needed to do that. There’s a lot of areas I need to improve on. This summer I’ll get in the gym and get better.”

He says he has no regrets about leaving school after just one tumultuous season where Lonzo Ball and his outspoken father, Levar, dominated the headlines.

“I know I made the right choice but I would’ve loved to go back,” said Leaf, who lives in Indianapolis with his 26-year-old brother Troy, who occasionally helps fill in during the scrimmages when the Pacers need a body. “I had so much fun last year playing with Lonzo and Coach [Steve] Alford.

“Levar’s just a loud guy who likes to the do the stuff he does. Lonzo’s fine with it. I was looking for any excuse, but at the end of the day I knew I couldn’t pass this up,” Leaf said.

So you’ll find No. 22 at the end of the Pacers’ bench these days, waiting for his opportunity. Perhaps someday, though, you’ll find him wearing a Team Israel Olympic jersey.

“I’ve talked to Omri a little about it,” said Leaf, who has yet to actually meet Casspi in person, since the Pacers and Warriors have yet to play. “But I’m probably not doing anything now because I’m trying to get established in the league. “

“After that, I’d consider doing it and would like to. But a lot of people think I’m not an Israeli. They don’t want to claim me, because I haven’t spent much time there,” Leaf said. “But I love it there and can’t wait to get back.”

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