This time last year, Hamidou Diallo was one of the most interesting prospects in the NBA draft. Not just at Kentucky, but in the world. He was kept under the radar after sitting out the entire 2016-17 season but still had NBA scouts drooling over his potential. His 44.5 inch vertical at the NBA Combine was one of the highest marks they have ever seen. His calling was superb athleticism combined with a fierce and strong rim-attacking ability. When he decided to forgo the NBA draft and stay at Kentucky, fans were eager to witness the inevitable highlight plays he would put on for display throughout the season.
However, since SEC play started, Diallo has been anything but a highlight player.
He began the 2017-18 season looking like the future star everyone thought he could be. Quick, bouncy, and with a killer instinct to get to the rim. In December, a 23-point game against Monmouth was followed up by a 20-point performance against Virginia Tech and it was easy to see why some scouts were tempted to take him in the first round of the NBA draft based on his potential alone. The Brooklyn Nets were enamored with Diallo during the pre-draft process last summer and there was a strong possibility they would have taken him with their 22nd or 27th overall pick in last year’s draft. Ultimately, he returned and immediately justified the hype. He wasn’t elite, but he was still good (and very young).
When SEC play began at the very end of 2017, Diallo hit a rut. And he stayed there. Right before the team’s first SEC game against Georgia, Diallo had scored in double figures in six straight games against legitimate talent. There were back-to-back 19-point games against the University of Illinois at Chicago and Harvard, followed by the two games already mentioned against Monmouth and Virginia Tech, then an 18-point game against UCLA and a 14-point game in a blowout win over Lousiville. Diallo scored at least 10 points in nine of his first 12 games.
In SEC games, Diallo has scored in double figures in only six out of 22 games. If there’s one player at Kentucky who needs to play well in the NCAA Tournament more than anyone else, it’s Hamidou Diallo.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Kevin Knox have been shooting up draft boards all season long, especially SGA, and both are now lottery hopefuls. Diallo has been slipping. Fast. There was a real possibility he could have been selected in the first round in last year’s draft, now it’s hard to find any mock draft that has him going in either the first or second round. That can all change though, and it would come at a time when he needs Kentucky more than they need him.
Kentucky will enter the tournament playing their best basketball of the season, which has included limited assistance from Diallo. The return of Jarred Vanderbilt from injury is a much bigger talking point. Kentucky needs Vanderbilt if they want to have any chance of really going far in the tournament. The team doesn’t necessarily need stellar play from Diallo, but it sure wouldn’t hurt.
The NCAA Tournament is one of the most watched sports events in the country. It’s exciting, completely unpredictable, and gives fans a peek at teams and players they didn’t even know existed. There are players who will get drafted by NBA teams in a few months because of how they “burst” onto the scene in the tournament (even though they averaged over 20 points a game all season for some team in the Missouri Valley Conference or somewhere like that). It only takes a couple of high-quality games against top-tier teams for scouts to dive deeper into an otherwise unknown player. The same can be said for Diallo, who luckily already has an established presence in NBA organizations.
Diallo may have struggled through the second half of the season, but a resurgence in the tournament could remove that from memories. Granted, this all depends on how far Kentucky can actually make it in the tournament and if Diallo is a key piece in getting them there, which I believe he can be. But that’s the thing. There’s a huge difference in saying he can and saying he will.
Diallo showed signs of life in the last few games of the regular season and even into the SEC Tournament, but nothing that led fans to believe he was “back”. His perimeter shot is still rusty and he lacks the confidence attacking the basket that he once possessed. A big game against Davidson would go a long way in building him back into the prospect he was when the year began.
Unfortunately, Kentucky doesn’t have time to wait anymore. This is now win or go home time, and head coach John Calipari isn’t going to play Diallo for 20-plus minutes if he isn’t performing at a high-level. SGA, Knox, Quade Green, Wenyen Gabriel, PJ Washington and even Sacha Killeya-Jones are all playing well enough by their standards that there is no time to toy with Diallo in lineups to try and find one that will work for him. Throw in Vanderbilt and that just takes away even more potential playing time. If Diallo wants to become a factor, he’ll have to make an immediate impact in a way that doesn’t hurt the team. If he wants a real shot at entering the NBA draft, he’ll just have to make some kind of impact in general.
The issue with Diallo is becoming time sensitive. The time he has left to showcase his skills is dwindling and returning to Kentucky next season may not offer any more opportunities than he saw this season. The additions of Keldon Johnson, Tyler Herro, and Immanuel Quickley along with the likely return of Quade Green will make for a loaded backcourt next season. They’ll have shooting, scoring, defense, height, athleticism, all of it. The need for this version of Diallo will be almost unnecessary. He may not be ready for the NBA, but he may not have a choice (here lies another issue with the one-and-done system).
Regardless of what happens to Diallo during the tournament, many probably predict he will be playing basketball next season at somewhere other than Kentucky. If the Cats can make a run in the tournament and Diallo plays like the guy who was rattling off 20-point games in December, the NBA will be calling him. If Diallo doesn’t show up or Kentucky gets bounced early, he’ll be the one calling the NBA.