Talent identification is now major a staple for the Michigan basketball program. In recent years John Beilein & company have received wide-ranging praise for their ability to land crucial roster pieces late in the recruiting process. But as impressive as that trait is, their penchant for early talent identification has played a greater role in their ascent back to college basketball’s elite.
Michigan got in on the ground floor of the recruitment of prospects like Tim Hardaway Jr., Glenn Robinson III, Nik Stauskas, Derrick Walton, and Zak Irvin… long before they shot up in the recruiting rankings. The same is true of prospects that wound up elsewhere like Devin Booker and Luke Kennard. These days when the Wolverines jump on a youngster early they have a great deal of company. That was certainly the case with 2016 El Cajon (Calif.) Foothills Christian power forward T.J. Leaf. Michigan was among the early few that showed strong interest in the Golden State star in the spring after his freshman season. Fast forward one year and he now stands as one of the most heavily recruited prospects in his class.
Ranked a five-star prospect and the #3 power forward in his 2016, Leaf currently holds scholarships from UCLA, Indiana, Arizona, San Diego State, Colorado, California, Gonzaga, and New Mexico. That offer sheet is the calm before the proverbial storm. Come June 15th Michigan is a strong bet to add its name to the ledger.
“What we like about Michigan is that the two, three, four positions seem to be somewhat interchangeable from the way that I see it,” Leaf’s father and coach Brad said. “That’s the type of versatility that T.J. has and that’s what Michigan likes… guys that can play multiple positions. This is why we really really think Michigan is a great fit for him at this point at this time in his career.”
The elder Leaf’s respect for Michigan’s system predates his son’s status as one of the nation’s top recruits. Brad Leaf is a student of the game, and as such, has long been a fan of John Beilein’s coaching acumen. That reverence set the stage for a strong start in the bond building process with the Maize & Blue.
“It has been phenomenal,” said Mr. Leaf. “I saw Coach Beilein when he was at West Virginia. I was always impressed with the way he used his perimeter guys. They could shoot it and penetrate and kick... those kinds of things. We have a great relationship… I do with Coach Jordan right now. We’re hoping that we continue to get better and better, the relationship.”
The Leaf’s will have an opportunity to further that connection next Monday when they take a return trip to Ann Arbor. Their first visit took place last fall for Michigan’s second ever football game under the lights.
“We went to the campus in September,” Mr. Leaf recalled. “It was pretty crazy because we went to a Notre Dame football game. So it was pretty nuts. T.J was obvious pretty wide eyed with all that was going on there (laughter).”
Since then the Michigan coaching staff has made it a point to repay that gesture by venturing out to the West Coast on multiple occasions to watch Leaf in action. The most recent visit was made by Wolverine assistant lavall jordan during the evaluation period for an open gym. Michigan coaches are also regular attendees at his AAU contests. That attention hasn’t gone unnoticed and certainly has helped the reigning Big Ten champs gain early traction in Leaf’s recruitment. That said, there is a great deal more that will go into determining which school winds up earning the talented youngster’s commitment.
“Coaching stability would be one (factor),” Mr. Leaf explained. “Michigan is strong as heck there with Coach Beilein. I think he signed an extension to 2019 or 2020, something like that. (Another factor is) does he fit? I think he does with the way they play and the way he plays. Obviously my son has got to get better… he is only a sophomore. Every kids dream (especially) if you are 6-9.5 and you can play the one, two, three and four… your dream is to maybe play at the next level. I’m not saying that he’s going to go there because he wants to go to the next level. I’m just saying the opportunity there… you have a good chance going to Michigan of getting better. And their conference, the Big Ten… I grew up in Indianapolis. We live in California, but I grew up in Indianapolis.”
Those Midwest roots mitigate what ordinarily would be prohibitive distance factor.
“My wife was born and raised in Evansville, Indiana and I was born and raised in Indianapolis,” Mr.Leaf added. “All the family is in Indiana or in California. Everybody that he is close to and anybody that he is close to (is still in Indiana). 95% of the family is in Indiana.”
That’s good news for Michigan, Indiana, and any other of his Midwest suitors. How good remains to be seen. As it stands Leaf plans on taking his time figuring it out.
Said Mr. Leaf, “we’re hoping (for a decision) by next spring.”