The 2017 NBA Draft class is one of the most highly regarded in recent memory with a large plethora of ultra-talented freshmen ready to make considerable impacts at the next level. Much of the talk in this draft has focused on the crop of elite point guards and numerous wings with incredibly high ceilings. However, a far fewer number of big men are drawing serious lottery consideration, but in a draft that boasts plenty of depth, there are several young big men that could carve out their own quality roles at the next level, such as Arizona’s Lauri Markkanen and UCLA’s TJ Leaf. Both were First Team All-Pac 12 selections, and while they will both have their respective shortcomings as they transition to the next level, they are each versatile offensive weapons with well-rounded skillsets. While many view Markkanen as the better long-term prospect, some feel there is a real debate between who will emerge as the more successful player down the road. Here is look at how Markkanen and Leaf compare, divided into a few different categories, as the days continue to wind down before June 22nd.
Size and Measurements:
Both Markkanen and Leaf are pretty similar from a physical standpoint and will have similar limitations in this area. It is somewhat difficult to directly compare the two in this category, as Markkanen did not participate in the NBA Draft Combine and receive updated measurements, while Leaf did.
Leaf checks in at just under 6-10 and 222 pounds with a pretty underwhelming 6-11 wingspan for his size. Markkanen is listed at 7-0 with a similar frame at 225 pounds. Both are relatively slender for their size and will struggle down low defensively against bigger and stronger NBA big men. Both have also shown at times an inability to finish through contact and be effective around the basket against NBA caliber length and athleticism.
However, what Markkanen lacks in length and elite strength, he is also able to get his shot over the top of most defenders as a result of being taller than most players. The same cannot be said about Leaf, who at 6-9 ¾ is right around the height range of most modern-day NBA power forwards. His lack of ideal length will likely be more of a deficiency in the pros than Markkanen.
Neither Leaf nor Markkanen is going to blow anyone away with jaw-dropping explosiveness, but both of them are fairly fluid athletes for their size. Leaf recorded a 34.5” max vertical at the NBA Combine, which is not elite, but it allows him to finish above the rim relatively easily in space.
Again, Markkanen’s athletic measurements have not been updated recently, but like Leaf, he is a good enough vertical athlete to finish above the rim in space and be a solid lob threat as well.
Both of them also have shown flashes of being able to switch out on the perimeter and hold their own against quicker guards. The difference however, is that Leaf is a little bit better defending the pick and roll and overall seems a bit more comfortable playing the small-ball aspects of the game. The other main piece to observe is that while Leaf is not going to be known as a shot blocker in the NBA, he at least provides some support in this area (1.47 blocks per 40 minutes) while Markkanen is almost a complete liability as an interior defender (0.65 blocks per 40 minutes).
Here is where things get interesting, as both Leaf and Markkanen are versatile and highly skilled offensive players in unique ways. Their skillsets on this end of the court is why they are both potential lottery picks.
Markkanen took the rest of the Pac-12 by storm, immediately establishing himself as one of the top offensive players in the conference when Arizona was a bit depleted at the beginning of the year. Markkanen (15.6 points per game) scored 15-plus points and made at least one three in every game in the first month of the season.
Leaf, on the other hand, averaged 16.3 points per outing and did so with remarkable efficiency, posting a conference-second best 61.7% field goal percentage on the season. He is also the far superior passer of the two.
Markkanen and Leaf both showed the ability to space the floor and knock down perimeter shots, converting at 42.3% and 46.6% of their threes, respectively, but Markkanen did so on a much higher volume (4.4 attempts per game compared to Leaf’s 1.7 per game). Markkanen is a legitimate knockdown shooter, and he may actually be the best in the entire class. He is extrememly versatile in this area, as he can be a threat in the pick and pop, off the dribble, and come off screens like a guard. Markkanen also shot 83.5% from the charity stripe to Leaf’s subpar 67.9%.
While neither player has a particularly advanced post game, Markkanen is also an elite shooter off the dribble, and he can finish at the rim with either hand. Leaf on the other hand, is limited to mostly right-handed jump hooks down low. He was also the beneficiary of playing with Lonzo Ball, who is one of the best facilitators the draft has seen in years. Leaf’s scoring and efficiency numbers are a bit skewed for this reason, while Markkanen did not play alongside any elite level playmakers at Arizona.
Both guys are versatile offensive players that can stretch the floor, but Markkanen’s elite shooting at his size sets him apart.
This category is the least difficult to differentiate between the two. Leaf at this stage is a far superior rebounder than Markkanen, who averaged just 9.3 rebounds per 40 minutes. A player his size should be much more effective in the glass than he is, but he is far better known for his ability to stretch the floor.
Leaf averaged just fewer than 11 rebounds per 40 minutes, but the numbers don’t tell the whole story. Leaf is a lot more tenacious on the glass despite not having the ideal frame to battle with bigger players for position down low. Leaf also shows tremendous motor on the offensive glass and will consistently affect the game in this area when he is not being used at a high rate offensively.
In contrast, Markkanen floats around on the perimeter much more on offense, as his primary weapon is his jump shot. He does not attack the offensive glass with the same aggressiveness as Leaf, and he is easily pushed off his spots on the other end.
Even if Leaf has a night in the NBA where he is not a huge factor offensively, his rebounding ability will keep him on the court.
Less then stellar combinations of elite length, athleticism, and strength impede both of their defensive upsides. However, as mentioned above Leaf is the better rim protector, whereas Markkanen provides virtually no upside as a shot blocker.
Leaf is also somewhat comfortable switching out on smaller players when defending the pick and roll. While Markkanen has enough mobility to hold his own on the perimeter, his technique needs some work.
Markkanen’s fit is also a much bigger question mark than Leaf’s in the NBA. Leaf does not project as a multi-positional defender, but he has the potential to at least be solid against opposing power forwards with his mobility and occasional doses of shot blocking.
While Markkanen is a nightmare to guard as a stretch-four, he frequently gets lost on defense when guarding them. Then against centers, he is bullied on the block pretty easily and does not have the length or vertical athleticism to compensate for it.
In the five categories listed above, Leaf has a three to two edge. He has proven himself to be the better passer, rebounder, and higher upside defender. Markkanen, on the other hand, has the superior physical tools and his otherworldly jump shot for his size gives him the advantage when it comes to offensive skillset.
Both players are just 20 years of age, so there is time available for each of them to fill out physically and further develop their offensive repertoires. Neither player is a difference maker in the post, but Markkanen can use his outstanding face up jumper from the mid-post as a starting point.
Leaf has a chance to be an excellent offensive player, but his jumper is still relatively unproven and without the ability to finish at the rim with both hands, there is uncertainty here.
Markkanen has a chance to be special offensively. Despite his defensive shortcomings, offense is much more valued in the league today. He is already an excellent shooter both off the catch and on the move, and this alone will find him time on the court. If he can further develop his offensive arsenal beyond just him jump shot, he could be an absolute nightmare to guard, which gives him the higher ceiling.