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New Orleans Pelicans should consider using Cheick Diallo ahead of Ajinca & Cunningham

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The raw rookie already offers benefits over the holdover reserve bigs.

2016 NBA Rookie Photo Shoot Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images

On a preseason “In the NO” podcast, Michael McNamara had a very interesting take on the Pelicans’ draft. I’m paraphrasing here, but he said something to the extent of, “if this draft had happened before the college season started and you were told that the Pelicans had picked 6th and 33rd overall and came away with Buddy Hield and Cheick Diallo you would have thought Diallo was the 6th pick and Hield was the 33rd.”

This is one of many reasons why I believe we will soon include Diallo with Jordan Clarkson, Will Barton, and Nikola Jokic, as guys who aren’t stars but are quality impactful players who outplayed their draft status. Diallo was ranked as a top five player by Rivals going into college. Scouts and mock drafters had him pegged as a lottery pick before he ever suited up for Kansas, and with good reason. He slid to the 2nd round due to a bogus suspension and playing for Bill Self who doesn’t trust freshmen.

Diallo has a new-age (not “New Age”, but stuck in the ‘70s and closed minded about personal style a la Phil Jackson) general manager’s drool trigger of a physical makeup. In the era of defensive versatility and switching, Cheick has the height, reach, leaping ability and speed to be the Jango Fett teams want to clone their stormtroopers from, or in other words, he was born to be a member of the Milwaukee Bucks. Diallo measures 6’-9” in shoes giving him the height to be able to hold his own against nearly every three and four in the league and a significant portion of fives — while being able to tower over ones and twos. The league is stocked with guys in that 6’-6” to 6-9” ultra-versatile height range, but Diallo separates himself with elite reach. At the combine Diallo’s wingspan measured an Elongated Man — probably the most complicated of all the stretchy superheroes (he’s Plastic Man with a real inferiority complex flavored chip on his shoulder) — like 7’-4.5.”

That’s 7.5” longer than his height with shoes on, which means it’s closer to 9” longer than the length of his body. Diallo makes me think of two Portland teammates, but it is his wingspan that gives me flashbacks to former NO Hornet — Al-Farouq Aminu. Aminu is another great specimen to clone your army from with his 6’-8.5” frame and a 7’-3.25” wingspan. When Aminu was here I’d always call him Abe Sapien, because Sapien was always drawn with over agrandized arms with his fingertips dangling below his knee caps.

Aminu has gone from being a polarizing player in New Orleans to a celebrated sidekick to the dynamic duo in Portland’s backcourt. An improved offensive game has helped him reach that level, but truly understanding how to maximize his reach and athleticism are more responsible for him being able to drop the mic and point at the New Orleans haters that couldn’t see the payoff some patience would have lead to. If Aminu’s reach into relevance doesn’t sell you then how about some other names with similar wingspans to height ratios — Draymond Green (7.5”), Hassan Whiteside (8.5”), DeAndre Jordan (8.25”), and Kawhi Leonard (9”) — you can start to see how much wingspan can dictate defensive success.

It’s said that football is a game of inches, and while this could also be said about basketball to some degree — basketball is very much a game of using those inches to affect angles. Especially when it comes to playing defense. Using reach a defender can can cut off angles or windows that a player can use to cut to the basket or get to an open spot — steering cutters off of their favorite spots or into help defenders. Lengthy limbs can also clog passing lanes like you are pouring lard through a strainer, or trying to putt through a goofy golf windmill.

The kind of increased wingspan that players like Aminu, Green, Leonard and Diallo have is crucial in their versatility on the defensive end. It gives them greater length and angles without the added weight that comes along with length gained through purely excessive height — this usually leads to a quicker player that can be effective on smaller guards and make up ground with the combination of lateral quickness and arm length. Also, having a standing reach that has been measured at 9’-1” gives Diallo a chance to hold his own against fives in short stretches even while giving up a lot of height and weight — Cheick is rail thin and only 219 lbs.

Muscle and core strength can be added to his frame to help bang more with the bigs, yet he needs to add this without losing his speed and fluidity. A lot of big men struggle to get their hips low enough to get great lateral force — Diallo has a lot of lower body fluidity, which are part genetics, but is also boosted by his soccer-playing background. That ability to generate lateral force will allow him to slide effectively side-to-side to stay in front of a ball-handler giving him real potential as a perimeter and iso defender. Also, his stride isn’t the stiff Atari Pitfall stuff we see from a lot of big men.

His stride is graceful. It doesn’t look pained or unnatural as you will see in this highlight reel that is heavy on running the floor plays.

Compare that stride to two of the most graceful floor running big men in the NBA. First, Giannis Antetokounmpo, to get an idea of his straightline speed and chase down ability.

And now our own Anthony Davis.

It’s this stride and quickness — 3.26 in the three quarter sprint drill at the combine — that had me predicting that the Pacers would take Diallo in the first round slotting a great floor runner next to Myles Turner and Paul George clearly addressing the up-tempo mandate handed down from Larry Bird.

Diallo is also a good leaper. He’s able to take that 9’-1” standing reach and propel it 35” in the air, giving him the ability to snatch rebounds out of the air. He doesn’t have the size or enough experience — switching from soccer to basketball in 2010 — to box out yet. However, he does have the athleticism, instincts and soft hands to be a serviceable rebounder already.

Rebounding is an area where Diallo starts to remind me of another Portland big man — Ed Davis. Davis is a player I’ve coveted for years. I’ve dreamed of the double Davi frontcourt. Ed Davis looks like what Diallo should look like if he added 20 lbs of muscle to his frame. Last season in Portland Davis posted a very solid 19.3% total rebound percentage. In his lone year at Kansas, Cheick was nearly identical securing 19.4 TRB%. For comparison noted rebounding specialist Tristan Thompson nabbed 18.4%.

In Summer League play, Diallo posted a 10.7 ORB% and a 24.9 DRB% showing that his athleticism and instincts should carry over to the more advanced level. The thing about rebounding is that the Pelicans need it sorely. The other thing about them is that they are very much a hustle influenced stat. Until he bulks up and learns better boxing out techniques, Diallo should be allowed to use his high motor and physical gifts to boost the Pels dismal rebounding rate when Omer Asik is off of the floor.

It is partially why I’m about to launch a full-fledged propaganda campaign to give every minute Dante Cunningham would play at the four to Diallo — as well as giving him a chunk of Ajinca’s minutes. Cunningham is a horrendous rebounder — last season Dante gave us a 6.6 TRB%. Opening night against Denver he gave us a goose egg in 9 minutes. Ajinca proved to be a serviceable rebounder in the last two seasons posting 17.3 last season and 18.7 in 2014-2015 — which was bolstered by a 12.4 ORB%, however a focus on getting back in transition has resulted in that number dipping under Gentry last season and followed up with a 4.7 TRB% on opening night. For a roster that is sorely lacking rebounding bigs, and a team that has declared this year is about “process over playoffs,” Diallo should be getting a chance to grow and show what he could be as we already know what we have with Dante and Alexis.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at New Orleans Pelicans Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Dante’s noted defense was not on display last season with a 112 defensive rating — it was the worst mark of his career. He did have moments of success, though, like his masterpiece against LeBron James.

In fairness to Cunningham, he was asked to play out of position for much of the year. Still, it’s hard to think that a very pedestrian: 6.1 points, 45% FG, 31.6% 3P%, 3 rebounds and an 8.6 PER in nearly 25 minutes per contest — with that accompanying defensive rating — can’t have the 10 minutes or so he will be asked to play this season replaced with a potential filled question mark. Those 10 minutes likely wouldn’t severely negatively impact the outcome of games. However, giving Cheick those minutes allows us to see where he is, and to monitor how quickly he can grow. Diallo at least projects to give you much better rebounding while also offering some shot blocking.

With the additions of Diallo and Terrence Jones, another “known” should also see his minutes dwindle or even be traded away. Alexis Ajinca is the Walking Dead Anthony Davis — a taller and painfully slower version of AD’s face-up game. Davis, obviously is an athletic freak, but if he were bit by a zombie he’d look a lot like Ajinca on the court.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at New Orleans Pelicans Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Many are worried about Davis being battered playing inside, and like that he was Channing Frye’d last season — sitting out on the perimeter. I am not in that number. However, if we need a candidate to migrate away from the rim I’d nominate Alexis. He has the same jumper as AD from 15’-20’ so if he can add a few feet to that range (and he can likely get to that 32% mark AD shot last season), he should fill that role. While I want AD near the basket for putbacks, post playmaking and the chaos it can create, I wouldn’t be opposed to AA becoming — dare I say — Channing French Frye.

With improved perimeter defenders, Davis should be encouraged to abandon the get back on transition D mantara of last season and be unleashed on the offensive glass. Plus, having Ajinca playing away from the basket is beneficial in giving him a jump start on getting back in transition due to his complete lack of foot speed. However, at best Alexis is a 2nd rate inconsistent Channing Frye that cannot be counted on to hold his own on defense. He is an entire franchise of Homeward Bound lost dog films when it comes to pick-and-roll defense. His shooting doesn’t move the needle enough to offset his lack of athleticism, switching ability or his defensive liabilities for significant minutes per contest. Ajinca was on the court for 11 minutes against Denver — minutes that should be doled out to Diallo, Terrence Jones and Omer Asik (while he is still healthy and performing well).

Diallo will not give you the shooting that Alexis does, and he may be completely lost within defensive concepts for the unforeseeable future, but he will at least have the raw athleticism and physical tools to make up for some of the many times he’ll blow an assignment. He’ll also provide added energy and hustle to a team that was often caught standing around and watching last season. On the flip side, Diallo will likely be a foul machine early on in his career as his energy and inexperience will have him biting on pump fakes and going for ill-advised strips, but Alexis picks up three quick ones in player introductions so it’s really no harm, no extra fouls.

While I am asking for an increased role for Cheick, I don’t want his minutes to be shared with Omer Asik. The spacing would be terrible. However, Diallo is not the offensive liability that Asik is. Diallo knows what he is at this point in his career. This is another area of his game that reminds me of Ed Davis. Davis has a career 17.3 PER while posting 18.7 and 20 PERs the last two seasons. Part of this is his rebounding, but it’s also his true shooting percentage, which was nearly 62% last season and is almost 58% for his career. Ed Davis maintains this by only taking the smart shot, and being able to finish around the rim in traffic. In Diallo’s limited run in college he posted a very good 57.2 TS%, which he followed up with 55.1% in Summer League. Davis is also a great second chance scorer — converting 60 out of 99 such attempts ranking him 11th in points off of putbacks — an era that Cheick projects to also excel in.

Like Davis, Diallo has nice touch around the basket and has the ability to collect a fumbled pass or awkward rebound and adjust quickly before going for the putback. He doesn’t get himself buried under the rim like Asik, nor does he try to take jumpers he has no business taking. At media day Diallo said his role is to run the floor, rebound and block shots. If you watched his performances in the Summer League games, you won’t question his ability to do those things.

In China we saw Diallo show off a short jumper that can make him a more effective pick-and-roll player — knocking down a short-range open jumper if the defense commits hard to protecting the paint.

Tim Frazier and even a ball-handling big or wing like Terrence Jones or Lance Stephenson will be crucial in creating looks for Diallo as he won’t be able to create for himself. However, if the staff can shape his game after Ed Davis, he will be an effective low usage player that can give you energy and rebounds for 9 to 12 minutes per game. Plugging Cheick in that role will prove that this season is truly about the process. He’s going to have moments of absolute disaster as a 19 year-old with only six years of basketball experience, but if his basketball IQ catches up to his physical abilities, he’ll greatly improve our depth and team rebounding numbers.

Rebounding a problem you say? Let me sell you on an solution.