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Cheick Diallo in midst of making leap from project to valuable contributor for New Orleans Pelicans

And he’s bringing plenty of smoke with him

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Washington Wizards Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The prospects for any NBA player who, in their third season, has managed to avoid major injury yet has not seen their minutes per game rise higher than 12.3 would usually appear pretty bleak. Cheick Diallo hits that minutes qualifier and his future has, in fact, been tough to predict thus far, but we finally have an answer as to why:

All the smoke he has been bringing has clouded our view!

For much of the third-year forward’s career, Diallo has been relegated to a role that often sees him called upon only when injuries befall others or games are out of reach (or are close to getting so). Despite the occasional stretch of extended run, he has never been able to solidify a rotation spot.

In 2019, the script has finally been flipped. His number was called upon when Anthony Davis went out with injury just prior to his trade request, and he has responded with the best few weeks of his time in New Orleans. Diallo has played in all 20 of the Pelicans’ games since January 24, and has averaged 17.7 minutes per game, a 92% increase from the 9.2 minutes he had averaged prior to that point. Though he has logged all of those minutes coming off the bench, his energetic style of play has been effective against the opposition.

Among players who have matched his playing time per game in at least 10 games over the last month and change, Diallo ranks 11th in defensive rebound percentage (26.1 percent) as of March 8. He is sandwiched between Serge Ibaka (26.1 percent) and Domantas Sabonis (25.3 percent) on the leaderboard, but also ranks above other names of note such as Karl-Anthony Towns, Rudy Gobert and Davis himself, all of whom clock in at 24.6 percent.

Some players will make an outlet pass after collecting a rebound and take their sweet time in catching up to their offense, sometimes barely crossing half court before the ball heads back in the other direction. If Diallo ever does that, something has likely gone horribly wrong. Time and time again, he runs baseline to baseline and throws his hands up hoping for a pass and an easy bucket in transition. He doesn’t always get one (and his ability to rein in said passes has been oft-maligned and has contributed to his 14.6 percent turnover rate), but when he does, the results have borne fruit. His true shooting percentage within the same 20-game time frame is 66.6, which ranks eighth-best among all players.

Not every shot he takes is a fast break layup, but most do come at close range. Of his 6.2 field goal attempts per game, 4.8 (66.6 percent) have come within 10 feet of the basket. He doesn’t waste any time either: 93.5 percent of his shot attempts cap off touches that lasted less than two seconds.

Aiding in the efficiency of Diallo’s quick trigger is a vastly improved touch on floaters in the paint and along the baseline, which have constituted most of his arsenal as of late. He is long enough to rise above his defenders if he has advantageous position near the basket, which he often does thanks to that aforementioned hustle down the court.

Is that a robust enough offensive skill set to solidify an NBA career? Of course not. But it is more than he had when he came into the league, and for a second round pick, meaningful development of any kind is worth appreciating.

The surge in offensive production over the past few weeks is less a culmination of Diallo’s overall improvement than a complement to it, because on the defensive end he’s arguably been even more effective all season long. His defensive real plus-minus (2.47) ranks eighth-best among power forwards and 27th overall, a stark improvement from his -.88 mark from last season that had him at 65th among power forwards alone. Defensive box plus-minus (which estimates a players impact per 100 possessions) isn’t as kind at just .50 points, but it is another marked improvement from -.30 points a year ago and -1 point in his rookie season. In the context of an increased workload, the boost is that much more significant.

Those numbers as presented are admittedly not as flashy as, say, the engagement ring Jennifer Lopez received from Alex Rodriguez last night (not even A-Rod’s gaudy career stats may meet that standard). Fortunately, Diallo’s improvement can also be seen through the lens of the more appealing and easier to digest on-court production of he and his teammates. His defensive rating has jumped from 111.6 points per one hundred possessions in his rookie season to 108.7 to 104.6 so far this year, with respective net ratings of -12.1, -7.6 and .10. In his last twenty games, his defensive rating is 103.1 and his net rating 2.6.

In the simplest of terms, he’s making a more positive impact on the court than he ever has.

As encouraging and effective as the numbers are, they are not representative of the full Diallo experience. As unique as his overall energy is, it is his electrifying personality that truly sets him apart. Whether it is during a dunk:

or after a block:

Cheick’s showmanship is always apparent. And it has not just come about during this recent stretch of his best season. In the proper context, he has always been ready, willing and able to add a little bit of flare:

The Pelicans in the HoliDavis era, save for an absolutely iconic point at Jusuf Nurkic’s expense, have largely lacked the kind of highlight-prone personality Diallo brings to the table. The more playing time he gets and the better he becomes, the more opportunities he will have to show it off. And this Pelicans fan is ready for all of that smoke.

When Cheick Diallo was drafted with the 33rd pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, it was unclear if he’d ever find a place in the league. He played just 202 minutes in his lone year at Kansas, and a more raw 6’ 7” prospect would have been nearly impossible to come by, and his development was certainly going to be a lengthy project. But with a McDonald’s All-American Game MVP under his belt and a body that still had room to grow (he is now listed at 6’ 9”), the potential and confidence needed to succeed at the highest level has always been right there.

The Pelicans front office has an important decision to make this summer. Since Diallo is in the last season of his three-year rookie deal, they can make him a restricted free agent by presenting him a qualifying offer (QO) before the July moratorium. If this scenario plays out, Cheick would have the choice of either signing the QO, playing for one season and then becoming an unrestricted free agent, or declining the qualifying offer and entering restricted free agency — which gives the Pelicans the right to match another team’s competing offer sheet.

There is still a long way the 22-year-old can go, but even in the present, the Pelicans and their fans should be happy with what this young man has become and thus should have plenty of interest in trying to keep him in New Orleans. May Cheick Diallo’s smoke fill the Smoothie King Center for years to come.