How Diallo be­came a sec­ond-round steal for the Thun­der

How Diallo be­came a sec­ond-round steal for the Thun­der

The Oklahoman (Sunday) - - SOONER POSTGAME -

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.

Then, fi­nally:

“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.”

OK­LA­HOMAN] [PHOTO BY CHRIS LANDSBERGER, THE

Thun­der rookie guard Hami­dou Diallo is av­er­ag­ing 5.9 points and 2.7 re­bounds per game.

Mad­die Lee mlee@ ok­la­homan.com

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