Five-star forward T.J. Leaf ‘loves’ Michigan’s offensive flexibility

Dylan Burkhardt

USA Basketball announced 17 finalists for the USA Basketball U17 team on Saturday and five-star forward T.J. Leaf was lucky enough to make the first cut.

Despite playing high profile AAU basketball for years, Leaf admitted that the competition level at USA Training Camp is some of the best that he’s faced.

“It’s definitely better, it’s kind of the best of the best and everyone’s competition to make the team so it raises the intensity a lot as well,” Leaf said by phone on Saturday. “So it’s definitely more competitive (than anything else this summer).”

Don’t expect the competition to slow down. Leaf made the cut to 17, but a final cut to 12 is expected early this week. The final selected team will practice in Colorado until August 1st before traveling to Doha, Qatar for additional practice and Dubai for the U17 World Championships, which begin on August 8th.

“To represent all of the USA from our age group would be a great honor,” Leaf said. “It’s already just a blessing being here.”

Leaf’s summer has been busy, but he’s been focusing on rounding out his already diverse game. Leaf stands 6-foot-10, but continues to develop into a player that can play inside and out. Throughout a grueling summer, Leaf has learned to be more consistent on a day-to-day basis.

“(I’ve learned) just to play hard every game,” Leaf said. “Sometimes maybe your shot won’t be falling or you won’t have legs that day, but if you just play hard then you can make up for it in other aspects of the game.”

Despite the height and length to play inside, Leaf’s game continues to blossom on the perimeter.

“My jumpshot is a lot more consistent now,” he said. “It used to be kind of streaky but I think it’s very consistent now, also my wing skills (have improved). I’ve really developed into more of a wing and a post at the same time so I can play multiple positions.”

Leaf’s strong play has earned him plenty of recruiting interest from across the country as well. When we spoke with Leaf in May, he was primarily hearing from Michigan, Indiana, UCLA and Arizona. Now that list has grown considerably. Duke was the most recent school to extend a scholarship. We spoke to Leaf before the Duke offer on Saturday, but he discussed his first conversation with coach Krzyzewski with Krossover’s Dan Poneman.

“Coach K, I mean, he’s like probably one of the biggest names out there in coaching,” Leaf told Poneman. “He’s a hall of fame coach, he coaches the USA team…[when we spoke] I was like ‘Dang, I just talked to Coach K.’”

Despite the new recruiting attention, Michigan has prioritized Leaf as effectively as anyone.

“Michigan is still coming at me the hardest if not the hardest of everyone,” Leaf said. “Indiana, UCLA, Arizona, Arizona State, Texas, Florida, Duke and Louisville (have also been recruiting me hard).”

Michigan is still coming at me the hardest if not the hardest of everyone

Leaf hopes that his August plans feature a trip to the Middle East, but his next visits on the docket are to Arizona and Arizona State. Michigan head coach John Beilein and LaVall Jordan have been Leaf’s primary recruiters and they’ve established a solid rapport after Leaf’s second unofficial visit to Ann Arbor in May.

“It was great,” Leaf said of the visit. “It was great to meet the coaching staff and just talk and then to go around campus and see all of the facilities they have there.

“I think I have a great relationship with both (Coach Beilein and Coach Jordan) and I feel comfortable with both of them and I love the way they run the program there.”

Michigan stands out in Leaf’s recruitment because of the way that John Beilein and his staff develop and use their players, specifically big men with perimeter skills.

“They have a great reputation of developing players and when they get there they should be good, but when they leave they are well developed and they gain a lot of areas of their game,” Leaf said. “I love them because they play a lot of people in multiple positions like me and they run the ball a lot.”

  • geoffclarke

    After Thornton, Leaf is my biggest want for this class. I know a lot has been mentioned about his interest in UCLA and Duke, but I’m having a hard time not imagining him in Sanderson’s training program and not imagining a potential lineup of Thornton-Chatman-Leaf-Wilson-Donnal/Doyle. (Or if Chatman is pro by then, sub in Langford.)

    • GregGoBlue

      He is a terrific player, no doubt. However for me he falls into the “great player we’ve been in on for awhile but swept away by Duke or UK at the last minute” category, along with Battle.

      I’m excited to see what a real “Beilein 4” can do in this offense, as the closest we’ve come has been Smotrycz thus far. I think with this incoming class we finally begin to see it a bit with DJ, +/- Dawkins and Kam. But man, wouldn’t it be great to finally see the concept of the Beilein 4 realized with the prototypical player for that spot in Leaf?

      I think until we start developing some 4’s and other frontcourt players, however, UM will be known solely as a guard school. (Mitch, obviously, being the only exception, but let’s be honest, he was a center with guard skills).

      • UMHoopsFan

        As far as I can recall, the entire list of that “category” is Kennard and Booker. Throw Mitch in there, and so far we’re not doing too bad with players that have offers from UM and KY and/or Duke. I know this “category” has been getting a lot of play in the comments and the message board, but every team has its misses on the recruiting trail when they go after top guys. Even outside Mitch, Michigan is beating teams like Arizona, IU, Gonzaga, Illinois, MSU, Kansas (Nik) for players. Michigan’s top 7 or 8 will basically be all top 100 guys, including 3 consensus top 50 guys — plus Caris (and Spike). The consternation over recruiting is overblown.

        • GregGoBlue

          True, although Booker and Kennard were our top two targets over the past two cycles who we’d been in on for many, many years (Booker since the 8th grade). And now that Duke and Dennis Smith have parted ways, I wouldn’t be shocked to see Thornton Jr fall into that category as well, making it three years in a row. That is, undeniably, a real trend.

          That’s not to say we won’t be completely fine, which we will. In particular, I’m not at all concerned over the 2016 PG position, as we will assuredly get somebody terrific and develop the hell out of him. I think it will take a few more years of sustained success until the rug won’t be swept from under us by Coach K and Calipari cherry-picking our top targets.

          • Frank Chuck

            Duke is no longer recruiting Dennis Smith?

            I find that very difficult to believe since Smith is from North Carolina.

        • John Billington

          Beilein is the best basketball mind today in college hoops he can win without the best of the best because of his coaching and those he has surrounded himself with. Beilein observes parts of the game most people do not notice. He doesn’t do a lot of game day changes but you can tell they are coached up in practice and are ready to face their opponent. He is the best coach today in college basketball, I am happy Michigan stayed with him when people were calling for his job.

  • UMHoopsFan

    If I could ensure one player from 2016 would pick Michigan, it would be Leaf. We’ve seen what JB & Co can do with players with some size and skills, whether it be Nik from the wing or Mitch from the post. And, as a basketball fan, you know that Michigan would unleash Leaf and maximize his abilities like no other team would. Plus, we’ve seen (from last year) that Michigan doesn’t need to be point guard reliant, and I think Michigan will be able to attract very good guards and wings. Leaf is a little more unusual in his profile. Of course, I’d be very happy with some of our other prospects too.

    • geoffclarke

      Yes. I think Leaf could dominate and be a potential B1G POY and All American at Michigan. And combine that with a dominant PG like Thornton (and certainly some very good 2s/3s and experienced, offensively skilled 5s), and we would be hard to stop. I think we might break kenpom’s AdjO-meter.