How Diallo became a second-round steal for the Thunder
How Diallo became a second-round steal for the Thunder
The spotlight fell on rookie Hamidou Diallo in the middle of the court, microphone held loosely in his right hand.
“Thunder fans,” Diallo said, his voice reverberating around Chesapeake Energy Arena before the home-opener, “thank you guys for coming out. On behalf of me, my teammates and the staff, we want to thank you guys for cheering (us) on, being the best fans in the country.”
A huge cheer went up for Diallo.
The second-round draft pick has already become a fan favorite in Oklahoma City. He brings energy off the bench, averaging 5.9 points and 2.7 rebounds per game. He’s dazzled Thunder fans with athletic feats and left them marveling at how they got so lucky with their team’s trade for the 45th overall pick in this year’s NBA Draft.
Answering that question requires a trip to an arena that didn’t always embrace Diallo quite so warmly.
“The Big Blue Nation can be tough, now,” Kentucky assistant coach Tony Barbee said. “They expect a lot out of their teams and a lot out of individual players.”
In order to understand Kentucky fans’ mixed response to Diallo, you have to know how much hype built during spring of his redshirt year.
The mystery of the teenage phenom who could make it to the NBA before ever stepping on the floor at Kentucky — he was projected to go late in the first round of
the 2017 draft — stoked bystanders’ imaginations.
Just before the deadline for college players to withdraw from the draft, Diallo decided to stay at Kentucky.
Barbee expected that methodical decisionmaking from Diallo.
“I recruited Hami for almost three years, and he played it like a poker player,” Barbee said.
Kentucky fans expected an NBA-ready player. Diallo averaged 15 points and 4.6 rebounds in his first 11 games. But in conference play, there was a stretch of seven games in which Diallo scored double digits just once. The calls to bench Diallo grew.
Wildcats coach John Calapari kept Diallo in the starting lineup through the NCAA Tournament. In Kentucky’s secondround win against Buffalo, Diallo went off for 22 points, not only flying high on blocks and dunks, but also knocking down a corner 3-pointer.
Then he was back in the middle of the draft process.
In April, Kevin Bradbury, Diallo’s agent, got an unexpected call from his client.
Diallo was training in Santa Barbara, but he wanted to come back to Illinois to work on his shot.
“California’s great and all,” Diallo said last week. “But … for me and my career, I knew I had to sacrifice.”
He left all-around combine training by the beach for more time with court skills trainer Jeff Pagliocca in the Chicago suburbs.
For Bradbury, that’s what was unique about Diallo, who was still 19 at the time.
“He worked on his predraft stuff more focused on the big picture than he was about where he was drafted on draft night,” he said.
In 2018, Diallo was no longer a headliner at the NBA combine.
He still was top three among all participants in lane agility, but his vertical dropped from the second-highest in combine history (44.5 inches) to 40.5 inches.
More importantly for Diallo’s NBA future, “from every workout that I went to,” he said, “every team was telling me my shot was looking better.”
On draft day, Diallo’s family and friends surrounded him in the Barclays Center in New York, the Queens native’s hometown.
Bradbury said he expected Diallo would be selected late in the first round or early in the second. Those marks came and went.
“I was just talking to my agent, trying to see which teams were interested, which teams weren’t,” he said.
“With the 45th pick in the 2018 NBA Draft,” NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum said from the stage, “the Brooklyn Nets select Hamidou Diallo from the University of Kentucky.”
Diallo rose from his seat as his family and friends cheered and congratulated him.
“He’s just a super athlete,” Jay Bilas said on the ESPN broadcast. “Not a skill player — the question is, will he develop?”
Entering play Saturday just three secondround picks, including Diallo, had played at least seven games this season. Beyond that, Diallo continues to impress on both ends of the court.
“He’s strong with the ball, he makes sound decisions, he can finish like crazy,” said Oklahoma City Blue coach Mark Daigneault, who worked with Diallo over the summer.
“He’s an unbelievable transition player and he really understands the defensive scheme.”
Thunder coach Billy Donovan warned early in the season that young players go through peaks and valleys. Diallo’s most public rookie blunder came when he missed walkthrough before the Thunder played the Suns last week. He arrived at the practice facility to work out earlier in the morning, according to Donovan. After that, he slept late, Diallo told The Oklahoman.
Diallo was apologetic, and he and Donovan agreed it was a good lesson for the 20-year-old.
Three games later, the misstep was a distant memory. In the Thunders’ 134-111 win at Washington Friday, Diallo dropped jaws again.
In the second quarter, Diallo went up for the layup with Wizards center Dwight Howard extending both arms in front of him.
Diallo hung in the air as he re-adjusted his shot around Howard, banking it in on his way down.
On the FoxSports broadcast, Thunder play-by-play announcer Chris Fisher marveled, “He’s looking like a second-round steal.”
Thunder rookie guard Hamidou Diallo is averaging 5.9 points and 2.7 rebounds per game.