Not all paths to NBA success are the same—even when they begin at a talent-producing megaprogram like Kentucky. For every high school hotshot like John Wall and Devin Booker, there is a Mychal Mulder or Wenyen Gabriel who have had to scrap and grind their way through the G-League to earn a livelihood in the league.
Hamidou Diallo has been in both places, and now he’s starting to figure it out.
Once a top-10 recruit out of Queens, NY, Diallo never quite reached his potential in his one season at Kentucky. He was selected 45th overall in the 2018 NBA draft by his hometown Brooklyn Nets, but immediately swapped to the Charlotte Hornets, who subsequently flipped him to the Thunder for cash and a second round pick the following year. After what must have been a flurry of emotions, he found himself in Oklahoma City, a team with a glut of young wings eager to earn a role in the post-Russell Westbrook era rebuild.
Year one was full of ups and downs for Diallo. He showed enough athletic potential to earn a spot in–and ultimately win–the Dunk Contest, but his minutes dropped significantly after January, and by the time the playoffs came around he was nowhere to be found. He spent much of those months playing roster tag with the team’s G-League affiliate, the Oklahoma City Blue. He played six games in 2019 for the Blue, who conveniently play right across the street from OKC’s Chesapeake Energy Arena, despite being assigned to them on five separate occasions.
While in the G League, he was able to play nearly 30 minutes a game for Coach Mark Daigneault, a longtime student of Billy Donovan, dating back to his time as an assistant at Florida. Diallo benefitted from this experience (and the departures of Westbrook and Paul George), earning +9 minutes per game in 2020, but missed over a month with an elbow injury that hindered his development. He had a few nice games in the bubble, but once again virtually disappeared from the Thunder rotation in the playoffs, while rookie guard Luguentz Dort stole the spotlight.
Now, it looks like he’s finally getting his shot. In the offseason, the Thunder made several key moves that seem to be working out in Diallo’s favor: first, they traded away All-Star guard Chris Paul to the Suns, allowing Diallo’s college teammate Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to slide over to point guard duties full time. They also traded away guards Dennis Schröder and Terrance Ferguson to the Lakers and 76ers, respectively, leaving little competition for Diallo on the wing outside of Dort and Justin Jackson. Finally, Donovan was fired after five seasons as head coach and replaced by none other than Diallo’s G League coach, Daigneault—a young, energized basketball mind whose primary directive is developing his young players.So far in 2021, Hami is averaging career-highs in minutes (20.6), points (10.5), rebounds (5.5) and pretty much everything else. Through eight games, his PER, VORP and win shares are all top-five on the team, and his .524 FG% is the best of any player averaging six or more shots per game. He still hasn’t shown the ability to shoot from deep reliably, but his increased efficiency and a significant drop in fouls per 36 minutes show a much more composed and calculating Diallo, which is bad news for the league when you remember he can do this.
After his 23-point, 11-rebound outburst against the Knicks on Friday, he’s quickly emerging as OKC’s biggest weapon off the bench. If he continues to develop his newfound chemistry with Daigneault’s Thunder—and there should be plenty of opportunities with OKC entering full-rebuild mode—the sky is the limit for the 22-year-old Diallo. He’s always brought the energy, and in the right situation, he could be a jumpshot away from a Bam Adebayo-like breakout in the future.
He may have taken the long way to NBA success, but the seeds are beginning to sprout for Hami Diallo and the Thunder. Now, while we wait to see what comes next, I’ll be watching these highlights on repeat. (Please come back soon, Dunk Contest!)