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2016-17 Player Preview: Cheick Diallo will be a New Orleans Pelicans project

The second round pick may not see many minutes during his rookie season, but don’t sleep on his upside.

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

For the first time since the Anthony Davis-blessed 2012 offseason, the New Orleans Pelicans will begin a campaign anew with at least two drafted rookies. Despite a mixed summer league performance, Buddy Hield has steadily remained in the limelight, but the same cannot be said of Cheick Diallo. Although he shined in Las Vegas, the 33rd pick of the 2016 NBA draft has received very little press since July. Let’s address that today in his player preview because in my opinion, he’s one of the more intriguing second round picks to come along in the last few years.

It’s important to first note that Cheick (it’s pronounced Sheck) didn’t start playing basketball until 2010, when his father realized a 6’3’’ 13-year-old did not have a future in soccer. A year later, he was noticed in an African basketball camp but it wasn’t for a string of recording-setting performances as it was more a tantalizing yet unrefined athleticism that could pave the way for a good education. You see most families in Mali cannot afford to pay for their entire children’s schooling, so scholarships in sports offer one of the few alternative paths.

“We never thought for a second that Cheick was going to be this big,” says Tidiane Drame, a Malian-American turned amateur basketball scout who discovered Diallo four years ago.

“I was garbage,” Diallo says. “I was not even good.”

When Diallo arrived at Our Savior New American in Centereach, New York, he barely had two years of basketball experience and it showed against the competition. In his first few scrimmages, he claimed he couldn’t even get a clean shot up at the rim because nearly every attempt was blocked; however, an interesting thing happened next. With absolutely no surrounding family and serving as an escape from the rigors of learning a new language and culture, Diallo turned to the hardwood floor for respite. Soon he was found spending hours in the gym; vast improvement ensued from an undying work ethic.

“He has a motor that you might see once in a lifetime,” says Terrance “Munch” Williams, the head coach of what is now known as the PSA Cardinals organization.

By the time his high school career concluded, he had garnered two Gatorade Player of the Year Awards in the state of New York and Rivals ranked him the 5th best prospect from the 2015 class.

Then, in what should have been a continuation of this high trajectory came sliding to a halt at Kansas. Diallo was suspended at the start of his freshman season because the NCAA believed he had an improper agent-like relationship with his guardian, his golden ticket to America, Tidiane Drame. In the end, he was penalized with a 5-game suspension for having accepted $165 in extra benefits.

Yeah, ugh, because irreparable damage had been done. Diallo, who was coined as “really raw” by Bill Self, needed lots and lots of repetition and that didn’t become possible until it was too far into the season. When Diallo continued to make simple mistakes such as consistently finding himself out of position on either offense or defense, the head coach was forced to pull the plug on the experiment in order to prepare Kansas for postseason play.

Despite appearing in just 202 total minutes, Diallo’s attitude reportedly never wavered. He continued to support his team from the bench and give it his all in practices. This young man, who seemingly had been wronged by a confused institution, stayed true to himself throughout the entire ordeal.

As evidenced by his draft position, though, Diallo was penalized for having such an incomplete season. Read what one scout relayed to Seth Davis, a prominent college basketball figurehead.

Cheick Diallo, 6'9" freshman forward, Kansas: "My question is, does he know what he is? If he understands he can make millions of dollars being a rebounder and shot blocker, he'll be terrific. If he thinks he needs to be a scorer, he'll hurt himself because he has no offensive game. I hear he's going top 20. Only a fool would take him there. He's an undersized four who can't shoot, and our league is about shooting right now."

For a player of Diallo’s background, I disagree with the above analysis on several fronts. First, who cares whether he knows what he is because he hasn’t likely spent enough time on the court to figure that out yet, much less realize the full extent of his tools. Moreover, he appears so well grounded that it’s difficult to rationalize him attempting to become something on the court he’s not.

Second, and more importantly, he should not remotely be considered an undersized four. Diallo is blessed with an incredible combination of athletic ability and genetics. For instance, in perusing material for the Pelicans Media Day set to take place tomorrow, I came across the following graph from Nylon Calculus.

Notice how Diallo’s steal and block rating sits well ahead the rest of the incoming 2016 class. In search of a quick explanation, his height of 6’7.5’’ without shoes can’t be the primary difference maker. Neither is a 35 inch maximum vertical. No, his biggest asset at wreaking defensive havoc is an incredible wingspan. According to the NBA combine measurements, his 7’4.5’’ mark is the second highest figure among the 2016 draft class.

In previous eras, height used to trump all on the hardwood, but in this day and age the conventional wisdom has shifted towards wingspan. Don’t believe me? Have a look at the top five players from the most recent defensive player of the year vote.

Height w/o shoes Maximum Vertical Wingspan
Kawhi Leonard 6'6'' 32.0'' 7'3''
Draymond Green 6'5.75'' 33.0'' 7'1.25''
Hassan Whiteside 6'10.5'' 31.5'' 7'7''
DeAndre Jordan 6'9.75'' 30.5'' 7'6''
Paul Millsap 6'6.25'' 32.5'' 7'1.5''

A typical man’s wingspan is normally barely longer than his height, but an NBA prospect is on average 4.4 inches longer than he is tall. If you observe closely, the five names listed above easily surpass that margin of difference with Kawhi Leonard leading the way at an impressive 9 inches of additional wingspan over height. Guess what, that’s the same figure posted by Cheick Diallo!

The desire for wingspan is simple: it offers a chance for greater versatility in a game nowadays that almost requires it. The league is much more nuanced than simple concepts like the longer the reach, the easier it should be to get a shot over a defender’s hands or grab a rebound in traffic. For example, the best way to counter modern offenses is through a lot of defensive switches, meaning players must be adept at guarding multiple position at times.

Leonard and Green’s heights and wingspans place them in the sweet spot of players who are uniquely suited for the current NBA. In the last five years, as the sport has rewarded teams that play faster and spread the court, many of the most successful teams have embraced small-ball lineups and benched their oafs who couldn’t keep up. Green and Leonard are perfect in this era. They aren’t too big to play on the perimeter, but they aren’t too small to bang in the post. Their wingspans let them clog passing lanes, and their hands allow them to rip down contested rebounds.

Diallo’s physical makeup embodies this idea to a tee, no? Although he’s slightly taller than Kawhi Leonard or Draymond Green, his mobility doesn’t suffer as evidenced by several draft combine agility measurements.

Lane Agility Time Three Quarter Sprint
Cheick Diallo 11.24 3.26
Kawhi Leonard 11.45 3.15
Draymond Green 11.01 3.40
Hassan Whiteside 11.83 3.54
DeAndre Jordan 12.30 3.27
Paul Millsap 11.67 3.30

Realistically, it’s not impossible to imagine Diallo possessing a defensive versatility similar to even Anthony Davis in the near future — once he adds a few more pounds to his frame much like New Orleans resident superstar.

Further good news, the rest of his game appears headed down a very good path too. Since the 2009-10 collegiate season, only 6 freshman have post a block rate north of 10%, a steal percentage 2.0 or higher and an eFG% of 55.0% or higher.

Yes, the 202 minutes represent a very small sample size, but thanks to sharing company with Joel Embiid, Nerlens Noel and Davis they are incredibly promising and do not appear flukish. For largely sitting on the sidelines throughout his lone year with the Jayhawks, Diallo was still able to produce excellent numbers in the 2016 Summer League. Averages of 10.8 points, 9.4 rebounds and 2.2 blocks to go along with a .500 eFG% per game are nothing to sneeze at. Neither was the 9th highest rebound rate or the 10th best block rate among qualified rookies.

Additionally, several other observations call for optimism. At Kansas, Diallo averaged an unsightly 7.5 personal fouls per 40 minutes. In Las Vegas, that figure plummeted to 4.4 PFs per 40 minutes. His offensive game showed improvement over the summer as well, evidenced below by a turnaround jump hook and reading the defense appropriately on a dive to the rim. Also, please observe a more fluid looking jumpshot. Take notice at the 1:14 mark that his jumpshot does not have as noticeable of a hitch or wasn’t as off-balanced as seen not that long ago inside the Allen Fieldhouse.

Most general managers have very specific body types in mind when evaluating new talent.

“The ideal player,” said Warriors general manager Bob Myers, “would be 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot-6 wingspan and still be able to shoot.”

Outside of the shooting, Diallo closely mimics the other facets of an ideal player. Even if that jumper always remains erratic, he should still have a place in this league. Kenneth Faried has enjoyed a fine career by playing with energy, dominating the glass and being able to finish in the paint (Thomas Robinson’s downfall). In limited minutes, Diallo has shown a propensity to do the same things, but he also exudes the talent and drive to make a positive impact on the defensive end of the floor. That’s extremely valuable!

A best case but somewhat realist scenario is that Diallo combines with Anthony Davis and Solomon Hill in a few years to form one of the quickest defensive front courts without giving up an ounce of rim protection or the ability to collect rebounds. That he mimics Bismack Biyombo, a slightly less intimdating around the rim but more versatile and effective on offense version. A worse case would obviously entail the Pelicans having made a multiple year contract error, but it’s really hard to envision a dud outcome with his size, talent, motor, dedication and the improvements he's shown in such a limited time frame.

It is the story of Diallo telephoning Drame, his mentor and legal guardian, during his first months in the United States, begging to quit and go home. It is the story of Diallo, nearly four years later, showing up 15 minutes early to everything — from summer tutoring sessions, to practice, to even an interview for this story — because, well, he’s wired that way. He’s a 19-year-old who spends his nights peppering Bill Self with text messages, looking for ways to improve. He is also a growing talent who fills up his Instagram account with quotes from his chosen sages, from Nelson Mandela to Gregg Popovich. The reason? Why take any of this for granted.

One should like the odds of Diallo eventually becoming a useful second round pick contributor, even if it takes a few years of development. Taking a cue from the broadway hit, Alexander Hamilton, just you wait.