Hamidou Diallo’s year and a half at the University of Kentucky never took the course that many expected. Despite joining the team in January of 2017, Diallo never seemed to find a comfortable and consistent rhythm during this past season. He began the year playing promising basketball, looking like the first round NBA draft option that some scouts thought he was during last season’s NBA combine.
The second half of the season, however, was a completely different story. As Shai-Gilgeous Alexander emerged as Kentucky’s best and most reliable backcourt option, Diallo quietly faded into the background. For comparison, in the first 12 games of the 2017-18 season, Diallo averaged 15.3 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 2.0 assists per game on shooting splits of 45.7/36.4/64.2 (FG/3PT/FT) while playing over 28 minutes per game. In the 25 games that followed (which were mostly SEC games, the West Virginia game, and the NCAA Tournament), Diallo’s numbers fell off a cliff. His averages dipped to 7.5 points, 3.1 rebounds, 0.9 assists per game on shooting splits of 40.1/31.8/59.7 as his playing time reduced to 23 minutes per game.
From the beginning of the season up until the Florida game on Jan. 20, Diallo logged at least 30 minutes in eight games out of a possible 19. In the following 18 games, Diallo only hit the 30-minute mark one other time, against Buffalo in the NCAA Tournament (35 minutes), arguably his most impressive – and important – game of the season.
There is a lot to dissect in Diallo’s game and how he potentially projects in the NBA, especially when considering how lopsided his season was. There are plenty of reasons as to why he could still very well be selected in the first round of the NBA Draft this June, but there are also just as many red flags. Let’s take a deeper look into what Diallo excels at and what he could improve on as he looks to continue his career as a professional basketball player.
Diallo isn’t known as a shooter. In fact, he’s a relatively subpar shooter in terms of percentages – something he’ll desperately need to improve at the next level – but there is one area where he excels on offense and we saw it all season long. He’s an elite athlete. Coming into Kentucky, this was his specialty. He recorded the highest vertical at last year’s NBA combine at 44.5 inches and ranked top-3 in both the three-quarter court sprint (third) and shuttle run (second). He displayed several highlight plays this past season, showing off his impressive leaping ability. His athleticism alone is what nearly earned him a spot in last year’s draft and this year it will almost certainly be the main reason an NBA team takes a chance on him.
By no means is Diallo a sure thing in the NBA. The holes in his offensive game are glaring, such as his shaky jump shot, his inconsistent aggressiveness, and his lack of being able to always stay under control with the ball in his hands.
Let’s start with his jump shot. He has a fluid release – although not the quickest – and he does have the ability to knock down shots with a defender in his face. His 6-foot-5 inch height and over 6-foot-11 inch wingspan give him that option. He’s a much better spot up/catch-and-shoot type jump shooter than someone who can create their own shot from the perimeter. Diallo shot 26-77 from three (33.8 percent) last season and 96.2 percent of those came as the result of an assist. For comparison, Quade Green (78.0 assist percentage) and SGA (82.6 assist percentage) made their threes with considerably lower assisted by percentages and higher total field goal percentages. Diallo’s jump shot isn’t consistent enough for him to create shots on those areas of the court, but being able to knock down shots when set up by a teammate is a bright spot for him in the space-and-pace era of NBA basketball, where he’ll likely trend towards the wings and corners of the perimeter.
Diallo’s jump shot is all about momentum and rhythm. When he can catch the ball in stride and within the flow of what is happening around him, he shoots with confidence. It’s when things begin to break down around him that leads to his own personal breakdowns. Here are a couple more examples of him in rhythm.
These are shots Diallo will be able to create at the NBA level, but he’ll need a heads up point guard (similar to SGA) who is willing to push the ball and open up these sort of opportunities for him. When Diallo has to do things on his own is when he overthinks and tries too much to score based on nothing but pure athleticism.
Winning matchups solely because he is quicker and stronger than the opponent is much more likely to happen in college than it is in the NBA, especially when not used as an advantage. The two examples above perfectly demonstrate how Diallo gets ahead of himself when his best option is usually just to dish the ball off. He sure can fly, but knowing when to rise up and dunk over someone is something he’s going to have to have more control over. The thing is, he’s actually an underrated passer. He never handled the ball or controlled the offense like SGA or Green did, but when put in positions to help make plays for others, he could capitalize on them.
Knox fumbled the ball away in the second clip, but Diallo still made a great bounce pass in transition that should have led to an easy layup. He loves to run on the break and push the ball when he sees open space, a trait that will no doubt lead to a hoops mixtape worth of highlight plays.
He’s also a well-rounded and solid rebounder. His first leap is incredibly high but what’s more impressive is his ability to land and then take a second leap that is just as high as the first one. He prefers to run on the break in lieu of going for defensive rebounds, which is something that – as a two-guard – isn’t too much of an issue in the NBA. But his offensive rebounding is actually quite impressive for his position. Last season, he had an offensive rebound rate of 4.2 percent, which only ranks in the 37.8 percentile, but was higher than any member of Kentucky’s backcourt (Green, SGA, and Knox) (For comparison, Jarred Vanderbilt ranked in the 100th percentile with an offensive rebound rate of 23.2).
What defenders are going to be most concerned about regarding Diallo when he’s in the NBA will be his ability to attack the rim. 124 of his shots this past season came at the rim and he converted on 62.9 percent of them, a highly respectable number. For comparison, SGA attempted 182 shots at the rim and converted on 59.3 percent of them. Knox attempted 99 shots at the rim and converted on 65.7 percent of them (although five inches taller than Diallo).
Diallo has a lethal first step that can blow by the majority of college players. It will be a different story in the NBA and he’ll definitely have to improve upon his dribble moves to help create space (right now, his best moves when attacking the rim are a side-to-side crossover and a behind-the-back move). But as someone who will enter the league as a 20-year old rookie, he has plenty of time to build on his already dangerous arsenal of moves. What impresses me most about Diallo is that – despite not being too physically imposing – he knows how to get off tough shots. Getting the shot off is the easy part, the hard part is being able to stay under control long enough to put up a shot that can go in, which he can do.
His offense has plenty of holes that desperately need to be patched up, but he has more than enough skill to at least contribute and show signs of promise on that end as a rookie. He probably won’t have a great first season on offense in the NBA, as most of his contribution will likely come from fast breaks and earning scrappy buckets, but there is no reason to doubt that he can’t one day be an efficient offensive player.
On defense, Diallo is a work-in-progress. He has potential to be a plus-defender in the NBA with his blazing quick movement both laterally and side-to-side, it’s just a matter of how often he’ll be fully engaged to lockdown opponents for an entire game (or just an entire possession, honestly).
He has impressive instincts when it comes to blocking and contesting shots without using too much body contact. He’s crafty about how he defends layups, usually going straight up and letting his lengthy arms do the work for him.
Where he struggles is off-ball and when dealing with screens.
Despite having a lethal first step, Diallo can hardly utilize it when dealing with screeners. Instead of trying to work through screens, he instead prefers to shift around them which typically leads to him falling behind his defender and out of the play. When he’s out of the flow of the defense, he becomes lost. Instead of recovering, he has a habit of staring around and looking for the ball when he should be trying to grab the closest offensive player. Sometimes his athleticism will allow him to jump back into plays and block a shot, but more often than not, he’ll die on a simple set screen without much of a fight.
His defensive awareness is not where it needs to be if he wants to be an elite defender in the NBA. He’s not aggressive enough when attacking screens and it was obvious throughout the season that he just didn’t look like he knew what he was doing when things started to break loose.
He also has a habit of unnecessarily overcommitting on drivers. When he sees someone coming right at him, he’ll sometimes jump at them instead of jumping with him (even though he’s quite good at jumping straight up against the ball handler).
He loves the highlight plays, but sometimes a little too much. However, when those highlight plays do connect, it can lead to some unbelievable defensive sequences. He has great instincts on chase-down blocks and is great at timing them before the ball-handler can float a shot off his fingertips.
On this last clip, even though he couldn’t work through the screen, he was able to recover back into the play and block a layup.
Overall, Diallo has the tools to be a valuable defender in the NBA, but he’ll never get there if he doesn’t become more aggressive running through screens. On top of that, he has to learn when and when not it is acceptable to help off of his defender without falling out of the play. But the positives are there. There aren’t many players – even in the NBA – that can block some of the shots that he did at Kentucky and he knows how to defend at the rim without fouling. For him, on defense, it’s going to be all about discipline. If he can buy into being committed on every single defensive possession, he can be a two-way NBA player.
For my Calipari-era comparison, I think the closest player that most resembles Diallo is Archie Goodwin. If Diallo was put in the same position that Goodwin was put into back in 2013 (No interior defensive presence after Nerlens Noel’s injury and having to run the offense with no true point guard), I think it’s fair to say their numbers would look somewhat similar (and the criticism, as well). They aren’t ultra efficient shooters or premier defenders, but hyper-athleticism and the ability to get to the rim are enough to get them to a run in the NBA.
For an overall NBA comparison, a young DeMar DeRozan from the Toronto Raptors comes to mind. He’s not going to beat you with three-point shooting, but he can get to the rim and connect on tough shots. DeRozan developed an improved defensive game over time and eventually trended towards the three-point line. The athleticism and rim-attacking ability are what stands out the most between these two players.
Diallo will absolutely get a shot in the NBA (and hopefully it will be with the Brooklyn Nets), but it could take a few seasons before he breaks out. Playing for a young team who is looking to unlock as much hidden talent as possible like the Nets would be a perfect scenario for him. He’s going to need reps to improve and a team looking to make a playoff run will never offer him that. The Nets are an ideal situation and have an excellent track record over the last few seasons in developing young talent. Diallo going No. 29 to the Nets in the first round will be something to look out for, but if he falls past there, it’s a toss-up as to what second round team may or may not draft him.
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