If you dropped UCLA's squad at a random pickup game on a Saturday, TJ Leaf might get picked last.
He doesn't look like a baller. And he doesn't rise above the rim like some of his teammates or steer college basketball's new Showtime act on fast breaks. That's Lonzo Ball's job.
Leaf's only sin is playing efficient, productive basketball without the flair others on the UCLA roster boast.
And that's why the potential lottery pick is also one of the game's most overlooked players.
Ball, arguably the front-runner for the Wooden Award, turns every player on the court into Ethan Hawke in "Training Day," an overshadowed best supporting actor. Ball has a presence now. He'll always speak on the postgame dais. Win or lose, observers will scrutinize his statistics. College basketball fans want to know what he's thinking or plotting.
He's not a player. He's the player right now.
So within the game's annals, Leaf's contributions might get lost if this UCLA revival continues. He is, however, a critical element in Steve Alford's operation.
He has made 48.8 percent of his jump shots, per hoop-math.com. The Bruins have made 45.6 percent of their shots inside the arc with Leaf on the floor, compared with 37.5 percent when he's on the bench, according to hooplens.com. He's ranked 41st with a 134.2 offensive rating on KenPom.com. And Leaf was two assists shy of a triple-double in a win over UC Santa Barbara (25 points, 10 rebounds, 8 assists) last week, a good day for the freshman.
He's certainly on the NBA's radar.
"He's skilled, knows how to play and has a feel for the game," said one NBA scout. "Plays with urgency. Limited athletic ability but good enough to rebound and finish. ... His stock is on the rise because of his overall production."
Added another NBA scout: "I think he's good. Should be a solid NBA player."
With 16 minutes, 44 seconds to play in his team's win over Ohio State on Saturday, Leaf stood on the left block, called for the ball, caught the pass, turned and scored on a hook shot in a seamless sequence straight from the Kevin McHale handbook. Nothing fancy about it.
But it was an effective move.
The Lonzo Ball shadow, however, is wide. And if the most gifted collegiate passer since Chris Paul at Wake Forest continues to evolve, we'll hear even more about Ball and maybe less about his peers.
But don't forget about Leaf.
Pay attention to these overlooked players, too.
Charlie Moore, California Golden Bears: Ranked 61st in the 2016 class by ESPN.com, the Chicagoan is averaging 17.1 PPG and shooting 80 percent from the free throw line and 45 percent from the 3-point line. He's a tough defender (1.5 steals per game) who leads Cuonzo Martin's most impressive defense at Cal (No. 8 in KenPom.com's adjusted defensive efficiency ratings). He picked off a pass and finished a smooth fast break in the first half of his team's win over Cal Poly on Saturday. Early in the second, Moore trailed on a fast break, found space in the corner where Grant Mullins found him for the 3-pointer. He's versatile, and he's evolving. He's a young talent, but he's also a building block for a program that will likely lose Ivan Rabb after this season. He's also a young leader of a team that leaned on his production as Rabb and Jabari Bird dealt with injuries earlier this season.
Ethan Happ, Wisconsin Badgers: Wisconsin, Purdue and Indiana seem destined for a three-way fight in the Big Ten race, which will start soon. To win the conference title, Greg Gard will need Bronson Koenig, Nigel Hayes and Happ to battle every night. He has maintained the momentum he accrued with his 24-point, 13-rebound effort in his team's win over Syracuse in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The 6-foot-10 sophomore keeps it simple. He uses his size and underrated strength to muscle into the post and get easy buckets. Nearly 90 percent of Happ's shots have been attempted at the rim, per hoop-math.com. He has made 72.2 percent of them.
Justin Patton, Creighton Bluejays: Greg McDermott has a team with the talent to reach heights that the squads his son Doug once led did not achieve. Marcus Foster anchors one of the nation's strongest backcourts. He has veterans around him. Patton is 7 feet tall, but he's agile and fluid, which allows his guards to run a lot of pick-and-roll action with the big man and create matchup problems for any team that overcommits, which Oral Roberts did multiple times in its recent loss to Creighton. Patton has made 79.7 percent of his shots inside the arc, the fifth-best mark in America. Lineups that feature Patton allow just .91 points per possession on defense. Creighton has better athletes and more refined talents. By season's end, however, Patton could mature into the most significant player on the Bluejays' roster.
Jordan Mathews, Gonzaga Bulldogs: Mathews deserved a spot on this list last season when he played next to Jaylen Brown, Ivan Rabb and Tyrone Wallace at Cal. Now, he's assisting a Gonzaga squad with as much potential as any team Mark Few has assembled in recent years. He's not putting up SportsCenter-worthy numbers, but he's avoiding the mistakes and errors that could hurt his team. Yes, he has made just 25 percent of his shots inside the arc, but he has connected on 86 percent of his free throws and 39.7 percent of his 3-pointers. He has recorded nine assists and committed just two turnovers in the past five games. He's the perfect veteran for this West Coast Conference powerhouse.
Jordan McLaughlin, USC Trojans: After Andy Enfield led USC to the 2016 NCAA tournament, the school's first berth since 2011, everything seemed to crumble. Julian Jacobs and Nikola Jovanovic turned pro. Four other players transferred. But Enfield kept McLaughlin, who has improved from last season in every category but 3-point shooting (numbers through Sunday night), including offensive rating (125.4 on KenPom.com), assist rate (26.1 percent), free throws (77 percent) and shots inside the arc (66 percent). Enfield asked McLaughlin to lead after this offseason's turmoil. He has answered that call and helped a USC team that should enter Pac-12 play undefeated.
Yante Maten, Georgia Bulldogs: The biggest issue right now for Maten's hype is he plays for a Georgia squad that looks like a team that will again struggle to reach the NCAA tournament. Still, the 6-8 forward dropped 30 points and snatched 13 rebounds against Kansas. He had 24 points and four blocks against Marquette. According to hooplens.com, lineups that feature Maten average 1.12 points per possession. When he's off the floor, Georgia records just 0.96 PPP. That's a dramatic decline that showcases Maten's importance.
Historic game organized by Frank Martin and Orlando Antigua for second consecutive season
Martin and Antigua have faced challenges this season. Antigua leads a South Florida squad that's 5-4 and recently parted with the coach's brother and assistant after an NCAA investigation surrounding allegations of academic fraud. Martin's South Carolina squad hasn't had the same fire since the coach suspended star Sindarius Thornwell, who was arrested in May.
But their troubles were secondary to the significance of their matchup in Orlando, Florida, on Saturday. The game featured two of Division I's three Hispanic-American coaches (Miami's Jim Larranaga is the third). Both coaches have worked hard to enhance the pipeline and help other Hispanic coaches emerge and find a path in college basketball.
And Saturday's game, much like last season's matchup, is a pivotal component of that effort.
20th anniversary of a perfect season at the free throw line
During the 1996-97 season, Division II star Paul Cluxton established an NCAA mark that might last forever. The Northern Kentucky standout made all 94 of his free throw attempts, an NCAA record at all levels. How hard is that? Oklahoma State's Phil Forte made 42 of his first 43 free throws this season. Appalachian State's Donald Sims missed just eight of his 170 free throw attempts during the 2009-10 season. But perfection? Seems impossible. Cluxton, however, shattered that idea two decades ago.