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Cheick-ing All the Boxes: Evolution of Cheick Diallo from unknown quantity to beloved Pelican reserve

Diallo was one of the big mysteries coming out of Kansas two years ago, now he’s one of the Pelicans most valuable bench contributors.

NBA: Washington Wizards at New Orleans Pelicans Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

In 1939, Winston Churchill was once asked if he foresaw the Russians involving themselves in the brewing conflict that was World War II and his response roughly translates to “idek” in this 2018 world we live in. Churchill described his uncertainty as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”

That quote could also have described Cheick Diallo coming out of Kansas two years ago.

Drafting players is nothing more than guesswork, crapshoots and the occasional “ehh why the hell not?” All the workouts, interviews and tape can only project what a basketball player turns into five years down the road but so much. Moreover Diallo was as big of a mystery as it comes when he declared for the NBA in the spring of 2016.

Take for example the fact that Diallo didn’t begin to play basketball until 2010. Or that in his one and only year at Kansas, he missed the first five games of the season and went on to average about eight or nine minutes a game. Despite that, Diallo took the dive that was declaring for the draft and the consensus was...murky, to say the least.

Standing at 6’7” barefoot and 220 pounds, Diallo was thought to be a bit undersized for a center and too slight to be a power forward. But between his nonstop motor and pterodactyl wings for arms, Diallo’s best case scenario was a small ball five a la Clint Capela. His per-40 numbers (15 points, 13 rebounds, 4.5 blocks) suggested that, to quote Beauty and the Beast, there may be something there that wasn’t there before.

So it was the Clippers, not the Pelicans, who called Diallo’s name with the 33rd pick in the 2016 Draft. Diallo, of course, was traded that same night to New Orleans and the Pelicans had media darling Buddy Hield and Cheick Diallo, international man of mystery, on hand as potential pieces to groom and give Anthony Davis homegrown talent younger than him.

Hield made the Pelicans active roster while Diallo bounced back and forth between New Orleans and various stints in the D-League. Playing for the Austin Spurs, Long Island Nets and Greensboro Swarm, Diallo apprenticed his way in the Developmental League and honed his craft. In 26 games, Diallo 15 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.4 blocks. On a per-36 minute basis those numbers jumped to 19, 10 and 3.

Diallo’s been on the active roster this season and in a limited role early had shown some improvement. The thought was that Diallo would eventually become the complementary piece to Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins this year and he’d spell either one of New Orleans’ two All-Star bigs.

That all changed when Cousins ruptured his left Achilles.

If there is such a thing as a silver lining to Cousins’ devastating injury, it’s the acceleration in the development of Cheick Diallo. Diallo’s averaging about seven points and six rebounds since the Cousins’ injury, but the signs of growth are there. He’s got four double-doubles to his name and his average amount of minutes keeps climbing higher and higher. Another reason why Diallo’s seeing the floor more is he’s getting better at defending without fouling; not only is his ability improving, so too is his wherewithal.

“It’s a lot different right now, because at the beginning of the season, like I said, I was not playing so it’s kind of, like, frustrating,” said Diallo after the Pelicans recent win over the Boston Celtics. “But now, I think I got time now. To me, I feel like I’m growing like a player right now, defensively and offensively now.”

Diallo’s earning serious run as a reserve for New Orleans and some lineups, with admittedly small sample sizes, have yielded pretty great returns for New Orleans. A few that stood out to me.

Diallo, Mirotic, Clark, Moore and Miller

ORtg DRtg NETRtg OReb% DReb% Reb% EFG%
ORtg DRtg NETRtg OReb% DReb% Reb% EFG%
108.9 84.2 24.7 33.3 71.4 56.5 54.5

That’s only a three-game sample size but look how a predominantly second unit holds their own, especially the rebounding percentages with Diallo playing a small ball five. That’s some lockdown defense!

Next, take a look at Diallo with the usual starters while in Emeka Okafor’s stead.

Diallo, Davis, Rondo, Holiday, Moore

ORtg DRtg NETRtg OReb% DReb% Reb% EFG%
ORtg DRtg NETRtg OReb% DReb% Reb% EFG%
109.6 102.1 7.5 11.1 72 55.9 61.1

The offense is still there, but the defense and offensive rebounding numbers go the wrong direction. Yet the defensive board percentage still stays in the 70s with Diallo and Davis together.

Speaking of Diallo and Davis, the two have been on the court together 22 times this season. New Orleans’ offensive rating is 117.3 and defensively it’s at 99.7, good for a positive net of 17.5!!! The two of them combined grab about 20 percent of all offensive rebounds and 75 percent of all defensive boards.

The evolution of Cheick Diallo the basketball player has been fun to watch. Diallo’s motor is always running and his Wakanda forever celebration from Black Panther is endearing. He’s still a kid playing a kid’s game and the Pelicans have been fortunate to watch this kid grow before our very eyes. But likely the most important facet, Diallo has revived the hope that an immensely successful career still lies ahead for a homegrown product — something fans haven’t enjoyed since Anthony Davis.