There isn’t any part of the game around the game Hamidou Diallo has not played beautifully. His decision to enroll at Kentucky in January and practice against elite collegians? Smart. His move to enter the 2017 NBA Draft and discover what the process of turning professional involves? Sharp. His choice not to play 5-on-5 at the NBA combine and show more of his game than he was ready to unveil? Shrewd.
His decision to return to UK with a tweet that declared, “Let’s chase championship No. 9, BBN”?
Whatever hurt feelings might have existed among Wildcats fans because Diallo flirted with the possibility of leaving before playing a game were obliterated with those words in the first few minutes of this particular Thursday. He told Kentucky fans exactly what they wanted to hear, what perhaps they needed to hear.
And now for the tricky part: Now, Diallo has to play the game.
Like, points and rebounds and stuff, not just showing how high he can jump.
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Diallo will begin his freshman season as well-prepared as any player in NCAA basketball history. Who else will have had three full months of college practice, workouts and interviews with NBA teams, a possible trip with the USA Basketball entry in the FIBA U-19 World Championships and summertime on the UK campus working a few hours a week with coaches and more with his teammates and classmates?
Because of his dalliance with the NBA, though, he’ll have to deal with the Second-Guess Army throughout the season – those people whose favorite sport has become assailing players who choose to enter the draft when they feel best prepared rather than at the first opportunity.
Diallo is 6-6, 180 pounds, one of the best leapers to have been tested by the NBA, provably quicker and bouncier than the Minnesota Timberwolves’ incredibly quick and bouncy Zach LaVine.
A season of being quick, bouncy and committed to UK’s success might be enough to get him drafted in the late lottery. Indiana’s OG Anunoby has never averaged 26 minutes a game, made only 27 3-pointers in 50 college games and is coming off an ACL tear and still is projected to be selected in that range in this loaded draft.
“I think Diallo will provide a ton of energy and elite athleticism,” Scout.com analyst Brian Snow told SN. “He should be a tremendous wing defender and then score when UK is able to get out in transition. How UK uses him with the other forwards on their roster will be interesting to watch.”
Like many who’ve seen Diallo play, and there really aren’t so very many who have, Snow is aware Diallo has yet to demonstrate consistent outside shooting skill. In five games last season at the FIBA Americas U-18 Championships, Diallo shot only three times from 3-point range and missed them all. That’s not a huge sample size, but we don’t have much more than that. For a perimeter player in today’s NBA, shooting is an indispensable skill.
Improving this summer as a shooter will help not only Diallo in the draft, but also the team that will represent Kentucky in the 2017-18 season.
This will be the longest, most dynamic team John Calipari has fielded at UK. And that’s saying a lot. But who can make a shot? Sophomore forward Wenyen Gabriel made 20 threes as a freshman, although he connected on just 31.7 percent. Freshman point guard Quade Green showed ability as a shooter in high school and summer competition. Otherwise, that will be the greatest obstacle for this team. As Snow noted on Twitter, Calipari may need to spend a lot of time on zone offense execution because teams will struggle to handle the Wildcats’ abundant athleticism with man-to-man schemes.
If Diallo can use the many months between now and the start of the 2017-18 season to improve as a shooter and give Kentucky at least some danger from the perimeter, he not only could be the key to that ninth title but also place himself among the most coveted 2018 draft picks.