T.J. Leaf: Creating His Own Path
With a father who doubles as coach and an older brother who is the San Diego Section’s all-time leading scorer, the table was set early for Foothills Christian (El Cajon, Calif.) sophomore standout T.J. Leaf to excel. With a year of high school and high-level grassroots basketball under his belt, combined with Leaf’s gym rat mentality, there’s no telling to what heights the game will take him.
Usually the youngest son or daughter in a basketball family reaps the benefits of osmosis — being in and around the gym all the time rubs off. More often than not, it pays off, too.
That describes ,T.J. Leaf, a 6-foot-9 sophomore at Foothills Christian (El Cajon, Calif.), who is coming off a terrific freshman campaign playing for his father Brad, a former player at Evansville University. Leaf definitely earned the game being around his father and from watching his brother Troy score 3,318 career points and lead their father’s program to four consecutive CIF San Diego Section Division V titles.
Those facts cannot be disputed. But osmosis doesn’t guarantee success at the next level. Success can be fleeting in college, especially when you’re an average-sized college player (6-foot-1) as Troy is.
Troy earned a scholarship out of high school to UCSB and his found his niche at Azusa Pacific. For T.J., it seemed a similar path was going to be forged — that is until he began taking the game serious in sixth grade and hit a sudden growth spurt in the eighth.
“Going to every single game my brother played and shooting on the side baskets at practice, that was me,” T.J. Leaf said of his introduction to the game. “From a young age, I loved sports. I was naturally good at basketball and fell in love with it when I got more serious about the game.”
“He was a guard and he grew six inches,” said Etop Udo-Ema, founder of the Compton Magic program that Leaf graduated to from his San Diego Magic youth grassroots team. “In eighth grade, he was about 6-3. He shot up overnight.”
Leaf didn’t lose his guard skills when his growth spurt hit and transitioned to the high school game rather smoothly despite some growing pains associated with his newfound height. After a successful high school freshman campaign in which he averaged 22.4 points, 11.9 rebounds, 3.8 blocks, and 4.5 assists and was a finalist for CalHiSports.com State Freshmen of the Year, Leaf’s basketball path opened up even wider with some show-stopping performances for the Compton Magic’s 15U team.
“I had played with San Diego Magic since fourth or fifth grade and was comfortable playing in the local stuff,” Leaf said. “Then I got to eighth grade and played with the Compton Magic a bit. Probably my fondest memory in basketball so far is the playing with the 15U squad, going to Indianapolis (for the Adidas Invitational) and getting to the finals. The team was playing well and I got to know the guys on the team outside of basketball. It’s been a blast playing with them.”
Ever since that title game last July in Indianapolis when Leaf scored 30 points, he’s been courted by colleges all over the country and is fielding offers from Indiana, UCLA and Cal.
Those offers are only the beginning and with his growing skill set and body, passion for the game and strong home base, there’s no telling where basketball will take him.
As his recruiting picks up and his national notoriety increases, he wants fans that watch his BIL mixtape to know he’s a god-fearing young man whose trying to stay as humble as he can. With regards to his game, T.J. considers himself a versatile player, but as any young kid his size will attest, he wouldn’t mind being known for his quickness.
“You always want people to see your complete game and it’s obviously nice to be known for your athleticism, but a lot of times, mix tapes don’t do justice for quickness,” Leaf said. “Every one in a while, a move looks slow to me on tape, but it didn’t look slow when I made it!”
T.J. takes after his older brother in his appreciation of the game’s best player, although he patterns his own game after Chandler Parson and understands why some in the basketball community tell him the Houston Rockets’ forward is who he reminds them of.
“I like LeBron James, but Chandler Parsons is one of my favorite players,” Leaf said. “He’s 6-9, can shoot and dribble. I’ve had two people in basketball say that’s who my game is like, but I already liked him from college (Florida).”
StudentSportsBasketball.com also sees a lot of Keith Van Horn, the former Utah All-American and No. 2 pick in the 1997 NBA Draft, in Leaf’s game.
“Van Horn was 6-7 in high school…T.J. is already bigger than him and maybe more explosive,” Udo-Ema said. “It’s going be tough for him not to be a good player.
“Barring injury, he projects as good as any guy we’ve had. I’ve been doing this since 1993 and, at the same juncture, T.J. is as good as any player we’ve had.”
Ronnie Flores is the editor of StudentSportsBasketball.com and has covered basketball recruiting and ranked high school teams as part of the FAB 50 for over a decade. He also is a special features contributor to BallIsLife.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Don’t forget to follow him on Twitter: @RonMFlores