EL CAJON Many high school athletes get advice from both their parents and their coaches. Well-meaning, but it can sometimes cause friction.
Not with Foothill Christian’s 6-9 sophomore T.J. Leaf. That’s because his father doubles as his high school coach.
“It’s cool that he’s known your strengths and your weaknesses your whole life,” T.J. said of his father, Brad, who has been at Foothills in El Cajon for nine years after a successful career at Steele Canyon. “We talk basketball at home. We watch college games and the NBA on TV learning things.”
Brad sees other advantages.
“As a father, the thing I appreciate is his high IQ. He learns things so quickly,” says the coach. “Because he’s been playing basketball for so long, he can play any position. It’s nice to have him handling the ball if we’re having trouble breaking the press or to be able to move him to the post if we need more size.”
Before you think nary a discouraging word is ever said between the two, that’s not reality.
“Oh, being around someone so much of the time can get frustrating,” says T.J., who carries a 3.5 GPA. “We can get under each other’s skin. I think because he’s my father he puts more pressure on me — he has higher expectations.”
Still, after leading the Knights to the section Division V championship game last year, T.J. has even loftier goals, which happen to coincide perfectly with his dad’s.
“One of the reasons we play a difficult schedule is we want a challenge and we want to get ready for the state playoffs,” said T.J., who is averaging 26.6 points a game while shooting above 70 percent from the field and the free throw line.
“By playing really good teams, we get noticed more, too.”
Not that the still-growing youngster needs any more looks. He has already gotten nine scholarship offers from the likes of San Diego State, UCLA, Indiana, Arizona and Cal.
You couldn’t help but be impressed when as a freshman not only did he pace his team into the championships, where they lost to eventual state champion Horizon Christian, but they advanced to the Southern California Regional semifinal, missing a chance at a rematch with Horizon while losing by just three points to Buckley.
He has worked hard to step up his game despite the glittering freshman stats.
“The thing I learned most last year was that adversity will come your way and that you need to learn from it so it doesn’t happen again,” said T.J., who also averages 11.9 rebounds a game despite often playing away from the basket.
“Sometimes you notice but you have to stay strong and play the game the right way. I guess you’d say I’ve matured a lot.”
He also knows the value of being a good team player.
“There are times when I realize I might be asked to carry the team on my shoulders and if that means scoring 35 points or getting rebounds or handing out assists, whatever the other team gives you, you take advantage.
“Specifically, what I’ve worked most on is making my left hand just as strong as my right, especially finishing under the basket. I feel comfortable now crossing over on my dribble from my right to left bringing the ball up court.”
He looks at the roster, seeing seven players who are freshmen or sophomores, none of whom is under 6-feet tall, and he smiles.
“As underclassmen, we’re only going to get better,” says T.J., relishing the possibilities. “I think we’re going to be pretty special.”
On that, father and son agree.