• Welcome back, Hoop Ballers, to our International Spotlight weekly feature where we will be taking a look into Cheick Diallo and his emergence for the Pelicans this year after a few seasons where he has been considered one of the biggest fantasy diamonds in the rough.

    Diallo’s story is really impressive as he was born and raised in the African nation of Mali and he only started to play basketball in 2010, moving to United States in 2012 in pursuit of a basketball career. The Pelicans recently published a video about his journey and the way he still connects with his roots which I really encourage everyone to watch in order to understand how adversity is usually the biggest factor in the success of international players coming from poor countries all over Africa.

    A five-star recruit, he was widely considered one of the top players in the Class of 2015, earning MVP honors in the McDonald’s All-American Boys Game the same year. A strong showing in Chicago validated how he could emerge as a rim protector and a rebounder while also finding ways to score a little more often than you might expect considering his raw skill-level.

    His inexperience was more than evident in his lone season at Kansas where he averaged 3.0 points and 2.5 rebounds in just 7.5 minutes per game before declaring for the 2016 NBA draft.

    Even though Diallo is another player who didn’t live up to high expectations in his lone year in college, scouts, coaches, trainers and medical staff absolutely raved about this kid’s character. A testament to his character is how, despite a season in which he probably tallied a lot fewer minutes than he expected, Cheick was an engaged player off the bench and showed positive body language and overall team support when his minutes began to fade.

    He was selected with the No. 33 overall pick by the LA Clippers and then traded to the Pelicans for a pair of second rounders (39th and 40th). Diallo was considered unorthodox and definitely a guy that a team would have to be especially patient with but the talent and potential were there since day one.

    We really targeted this guy,” Pelicans ex-GM Dell Demps said, after moving up in the draft to ensure that he’d acquire Diallo. “We were surprised he was there. We didn’t want to take the chance (of missing out on him). We had him rated higher (than a 33rd pick).”

    Lack of Player Development in New Orleans

    In his first two seasons with New Orleans, Diallo played sparingly as a reserve. He averaged just over 11 minutes each year but he has been able to capitalize on the opportunity presented to him this year due to the Anthony Davis fiasco. In fact, last week, he became the first player in NBA history to have 18 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks while shooting perfect from the field in less than 20 minutes on the court.

    The issue with New Orleans in recent years is that the franchise has tried to patch its roster around AD, failing to invest the necessary resources into developing young players internally. The draft deal to get Diallo has been an absolute steal for the Pelicans as they only had to give away a couple second-round picks (David Michineau and Diamond Stone), neither of whom is in the league today, but one could make the case that Diallo hasn’t had the necessary reps in order to take the next step into becoming a rotation piece.

    That lack of playing time is still obvious in his game as it leads to silly and unforced turnovers that make coaches go crazy, further limiting his ability to stay on the court. Look at him unable to handle the ball after receiving a pass that has him wide open deep in the paint in a fast break opportunity.

    In his rookie season, Diallo played more regular season games in the G-League (26) than in the NBA (17), while last year, with the need for AD and Boogie to develop chemistry and the Pelicans desperate to make the playoffs, the minutes were not there and his playing time diminished even further after the team traded for Nikola Mirotic in February.

    Alvin Gentry, meanwhile, has emphasized on the need to develop Diallo but with his job on the line it’s obvious that he wasn’t willing to experiment with his young forward. Smart franchises have a system in place that allows them to grow despite any kind of adversity but New Orleans, for the reasons we all know, is a small market that has been struggling to establish a successful basketball program for many years.

    What’s surprising though is that when given meaningful minutes, Diallo has always been making a case for being a big part of the Pelicans in the future. In four end-of-season appearances off the bench in his rookie year, he averaged 11.0 points, 9.8 rebounds and 1.0 blocks in about 24 minutes a night, while putting up 18.6 points and 9.8 rebounds on 56.3 percent from the field at the Las Vegas Summer League.

    This season, there have been eight games so far in which Diallo has played over 20 minutes, and he has averaged 14.0 points, 10.4 rebounds, 1.25 steals and 0.75 blocks per game while shooting an elite 72.3 percent. And despite the limited action, his per-36 minutes numbers are impressive, translating to 15.7 points, 13.2 rebounds 1.0 steals and 1.4 blocks, proving how the kid has only scratched the surface of his potential.

    Lacks Size but Compensates with Length & Effort

    NBA fans have wondered in the past why Diallo hasn’t been in the rotation but other than the fact that he is not quite ready to contribute, the truth of the matter is that he is somehow undersized. Anthony Davis has repeatedly made it clear that he doesn’t enjoy playing the center position due to the constant wear and tear it brings to his body but Diallo was never the answer to that problem. In May 2016, at the NBA Draft combine, Diallo registered a 7-foot, 4½-inch wingspan and an 8-foot-11½ standing reach but he measured at a mere 6’7 ½ barefoot and just 220 pounds. Look at Richaun Holmes picking him apart in an open-court situation where Diallo really looks small.

    His lengthy frame, endless energy and leaping ability is what saves the day for him actually as it’s pretty clear by now that he is a bit undersized for a center and too slight to be a power forward, resembling the likes of Kenneth Faried more than Clint Capela. When compared to other 6’9’’ players around the league, Diallo has both terrific end-to-end speed, and impressive energy to keep him going. These unique traits make him a transition threat as a big man, and a chase-down shot blocker and finisher on the other side of the floor.

    Look at how effective he can be coming from the weak side and blocking opponents who think they have an open lane to the rim. Allonzo Trier puts a nice move on one of the league’s top defenders in Jrue Holiday and runs for the easy bucket but Diallo is there to cover with the spectacular block.

    The most obvious intangible that doesn’t necessarily appear on a stat sheet is his motor. He is always a burst of energy off the bench and is clearly a hard worker and hustler when he sees minutes. Diallo is a bundle of energy any time he steps on the court, but if you pay even closer attention, you’ll notice that also applies even when he’s on the bench. During many of his DNPs over the past three seasons, he’s been one of the team’s most fervent cheerleaders, celebrating teammate’s baskets and trying to fire up spectators. And on the basketball side of it, what his hustle translates to is a tremendous knack for rebounding the ball despite not always being in the best position.

    His per-36 numbers translate to 13.2, 13.1 and 13.3 rebounds in his three years in the NBA where he has averaged 11.7, 11.2 and 12.3 minutes respectively, further validating his consistency in limited minutes and the need to be rewarded with more playing time. His long arms really aid in his ability to grab misses on both ends while his activity level makes him one of the most capable big men around the league in deflections, averaging 0.7 steals in less than a dozen minutes per game this year. Here is Michael Kidd-Gilchrist attacking the rim but being unable to finish with Diallo grabbing the ball from his hands before he even elevates for the layup.

    Areas of Concern

    Even though Diallo’s defensive upside was the reason the Pelicans drafted him, the Malian forward is still lacking the necessary defensive versatility and basketball awareness in order to maximize his chances to contribute more while on the floor. In a league that now features constant defensive switching and requires bigs to contain smaller players or run out to contest perimeter shooters, his ability to move around can to be extremely important but he often looks lost and unaware of all the action that is happening around him.

    This was extremely evident this week when the Pelicans faced the Jazz, who are coached by one of the smartest basketball minds in the NBA in Quin Snyder. Look at Diallo being too far away from the basket guarding Rudy Gobert and allowing Joe Ingles to set up a backdoor screen for the French center at the top of the free throw line. Cheick finds himself trapped in a perfectly-executed play by the Jazz where Ricky Rubio throws the easy lob pass.

    New Orleans played the Jazz twice in a span of only three days and Snyder took Diallo completely out of the second game by matching him up against Jae Crowder and forcing Alvin Gentry to go with other options as the big man lasted only 9 minutes.

    The lack of of size and strength at his position often makes him a target for opposing offenses too as they will attack him relentlessly, forcing him to foul too much while defending (4.5 per 36 minutes). Diallo must continue to hit the weight room as he has a nice frame to add muscle and an extra 15 pounds with some physical maturity would do him wonders. Look at how Derick Favors bullies him into the paint on a goal-foul opportunity after a simple pick-and-roll action at the top of the key.

    Further review of his game shows that his decision-making offensively is still a work in progress. His usage percent is obviously low while he has only dished out 41 assists in three seasons with the Pelicans to pair with 71 turnovers. Diallo’s lack of experience is still apparent as he often throws the ill-advised pass or commits offensive fouls, costing his team of valuable possessions and making it tough for his coaches to trust him. Here is a pass you won’t see being taught at basketball clinics.

    Despite sporting a good overall field goal percentage (58.4 overall so far in his career), his shot selection shows that he has little grasp of the flow of the game while he rarely initiates good ball movement. Most of his offensive possessions are post-ups, showing that he can attack his man and become a target for entry passes while he also looks comfortable taking turnaround jumpers or 8-10-footers from the face-up position.

    Rolling to the basket, on the other hand, is something he isn’t as comfortable in doing because he doesn’t particularly finish well, especially through contact. However, he can get better in this by adding more strength and he is a decent free throw shooter who should try to initiate contact and score more by going to the charity stripe. Look at him unable to finish against Will Barton on a nice switch where Julius Randle passes the ball out of the big bodies of Paul Milsap and Mason Plumlee, leaving Diallo in a perfect position to score against a smaller defender.

    The Need to Evaluate as a Starter

    While Diallo is well aware of his limits, he has good length and sizes up pretty favorably as a power forward in this league but not as the modern type of stretch forward that all teams are looking for these days. He can hit the 15-footer and it appears that he is over a slight hitch that he had in his shot earlier in his career. A consistent jumper is exactly what will allow him to play as a power forward at this level because of the constant need in today’s game to step out on the perimeter and knock down a jumper.

    At times the Pelicans have looked like the sort of pace-and-space, ball movement-oriented offense that Alvin Gentry helped usher into the NBA under Mike D’Antoni in Phoenix but it’s unclear what Diallo’s role can be in that system since he cannot stretch the floor yet and is not the dominant big man that can operate as the rim protector. Gentry’s greatest strength as a coach is his ability to adapt to his best players and with AD on the verge of departing from New Orleans it’s unclear if he will return next season or if he’s even interested in putting himself through a rebuilding situation.

    The Pelicans will have to make some crucial decisions in the upcoming summer depending on the return they get for Davis. While Julius Randle is someone they like and they would like to keep moving forward, that obviously doesn’t mix well with Diallo’s development. Cheick will again get the opportunity to play big minutes down the stretch and maybe he will be able to convince the front office that he deserves a real chance at starting next season but everything is up in the air for now in New Orleans.

    Feel free to reach out to me on Twitter @philysstar and with fantasy playoffs rapidly approaching, make sure you stay up to date on all the breaking news and rumors posted on our website and on our Twitter account @HoopBallFantasy.

    Stats are courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com and are accurate as of March 8th.

Fantasy News

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