The New Orleans Pelicans and the Diallo Development Project

On Draft Night this past Thursday, the New Orleans Pelicans traded the No.39 and No.40 picks in the 2nd Round of the 2016 NBA Draft to the Los Angeles Clippers — in exchange to move up six spots for the #33 overall pick. Almost immediately thereafter, the second guessing and Monday Morning quarterbacking by some angry Pelicans fans began.

The prevailing opinion was that the  player Demps and company traded  up for must be a special player, to give up BOTH picks to only move up a grand total of 6 spots.

When Cheick Diallo’s name was announced as the 33rd pick, did you as a Pelicans fan think to yourself: “No, Dell — not again!”

Perhaps it even sounded like a club DJ scribbling on the turntable, or maybe since you’re probably also a Saints fan as well as a Pelicans fan, you just simply said to yourself: “WHO DAT?” — but in an entirely different context.

Cheick Diallo wasn’t the “splash pick” that Pelican fans had anticipated. He wasn’t that combo guard/wing player or that flashy name that Pelicans fans envisioned. Diallo was a mystery, more of a “who’s that guy???”

Dec 1, 2015; Lawrence, KS, USA; Kansas Jayhawks forward Cheick Diallo (13) dunks the ball against the Loyola-Maryland Greyhounds in the second half at Allen Fieldhouse. Kansas won the game 94-61. Mandatory Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

As it is, Diallo only began playing basketball 6 years ago.

Diallo arrived in America in 2012 at the age of 15 from Kayes, Mali — a nation in the western African continent.

Diallo arrived at JFK airport without any family or friends, in the pursuit of  basketball dreams. Diallo, the youngest of 6 boys, became homesick and wanted to leave but decided to stay, with a self-made goal of working hard, and finishing his goal.

“It was so tough. I left my parents, my friends, my brothers, everything, just to come here. At first, I was thinking, I just want to go back. But one day I said, ‘No, not yet. I want to stay and work hard here before I go back to Mali.'”

An additional diffuculty: he also had to learn English.

Diallo attended Our Savior New American School in Centereach, New York through an international program.  On the court, Diallo struggled initially as a freshman. Diallo made the necessary adjustments to his game, and later in his high school career he blossomed.

Diallo attracted attention with his shot-blocking, rebounding, and versatility. Diallo was invited to the National Basketball Players Association Top 100 camp in 2013 and went on to become its first MVP from Africa.

Diallo’s play improved so dramatically by his senior year in 2015 that he was considered a 5-star recruit by several recruiting services, named McDonald’s All-American game MVP, Jordan Brand Classic MVP, and First Team Parade All-American.

Diallo then signed with and “took his talents” to play for Bill Self and the Kansas Jayhawks.

If Diallo thought his transition to America and learning American basketball was tough, it paled in comparison to his first year at Kansas. Diallo didn’t play much at Kansas (202 minutes) last season because of an NCAA Investigation about the previous academic requirements at his high school, Our Savior New American School.

The NCAA investigation kept Diallo from practicing until this past October, and he was ineligible to play in until December. Subsequently, he played in 27 games (1 start), averaged 7.5 minutes a game, 3 points, 2.5 rebounds, and shot 56% from the field and 55% from the free throw line.

Those aren’t exactly “earth shattering” numbers from a one and done player. Through it all however, Diallo was resolute .

Dec 1, 2015; Lawrence, KS, USA; Kansas Jayhawks forward Cheick Diallo (13) defends against the Loyola-Maryland Greyhounds in the second half at Allen Fieldhouse. Kansas won the game 94-61. Mandatory Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

Diallo showed no ill-will, and he remained focused on his team. He was always among the first players up off the bench to congratulate his teammates,  smiling and having fun during the Jayhawks run toward the Elite Eight and the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA.

Diallo had this to say about the NCAA investigation:

“The NCAA stuff, it’s not my fault, it’s not the coach’s fault. The NCAA suspended me for three or four months, so I came in late and there’s nothing I could do. After they suspended me for five games, I was behind everybody. There was just nothing I could do, I couldn’t help the team. Sometimes I played three or four minutes in a game, but I’m a team player and I don’t get mad about it. I was happy for my team.”

Diallo decided to enter 2016 NBA Draft, after his first and only season in Lawrence. He also attended the NBA Draft combine to improve his draft stock. Diallo had an excellent week at the combine and decided to stay in the draft.

Diallo took advantage of the revised early entry process that  allows student-athletes to test their stock with the option of returning to school before signing an agent. General managers and executives around the event were  impressed with his maturity and personality.

Diallo was one of the biggest risers during the pre-draft process and combine, showing off game-changing shot-blocking and athleticism.

Feb 20, 2016; Manhattan, KS, USA; Kansas Jayhawks forward Cheick Diallo (13) blocks the shot of Kansas State Wildcats guard Justin Edwards (14) during first half at Fred Bramlage Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports

Despite his raw ability, he’s still able to impact the game on both ends of the floor with his ability to switch onto smaller players defensively and bring value as a rim protector and alley-oop threat.

Although Diallo is  raw and inexperienced  on the offensive end, Diallo has an incredibly high ceiling defensively — thanks to his length and  lateral quickness . Standing 6-foot-9 and weighing 220 pounds with a  7 foot-4.5 inch wingspan, he pairs excellent height and length with a  35.0-inch maximum vertical leap.

During the press conference Friday introducing him and top pick (#6 overall) Buddy Hield of Oklahoma as the newest members of the New Orleans Pelicans, Diallo acknowledged the doubters and naysayers.

“A lot of people doubt me and think (to themselves): “he wasn’t playing at Kansas because he wasn’t good enough,” Diallo said.

‘So I have to prove people wrong because I know people don’t know who I am. People don’t know what kind of things I do. People, ‘say oh second round pick,’ he didn’t start basketball until 2010. That doesn’t mean anything. That was five years, it doesn’t mean anything.”

“I’m so happy to be here, but don’t know who I am, but I have a lot of opportunities and I want to do anything to get better. Anything in life, whether its my coach, my teammates, anything I just want to learn from anybody.'”

The Pelicans front office duo of Demps and Coach Alvin Gentry really like Diallo, undoubtedly since they traded up to get him. Alvin Gentry had this to say about Diallo:

‘We really liked and we saw him in Chicago (at combine) and we thought Cheick did a really good job there. He did not get to play a lot of minutes at Kansas but obviously it’s a place that I’m very familiar with; I spent four years as an assistant and Bill Self was on the staff when I was there. So I feel very confident after talking to him that we could have this guy who could have potentially been a first-round pick. He’s an energy guy who plays extremely hard.”

He was more of a victim of circumstance, because by the time he was eligible to play, Kansas was No. 1 in the polls, so it was hard to suddenly incorporate someone else into the rotation and lineups when you’re No. 1. All of those things were expressed to me by Bill Self, his coach, and he had a lot of confidence in him and had nothing but good things to say about him. I think he will be a fan favorite. He will do it in practice and do it in the games.”

Coach Gentry envisions Diallo as a combination of a power forward and a center.  A center in small ball situations, but that can defend forwards.

Diallo’s contribution this year will be running the floor, blocks shots, and rebounds. His energy and exuberance is infectious.

Teaming him with Anthony Davis is intriguing.  Second round picks are usually developmental prospects. Demps and Gentry have confidence that the “Diallo Development Project” will pay immediate dividends.

The Pelicans’ player development has been spotty at best,over the last several seasons. Development takes time, patience, and effort.

Diallo is a textbook example of a “boom or bust” prospect.

He has been through adversity but persevered to reach his goal. Diallo is here now and he has arrived at the doorstep of stardom — but ultimately it will be his development that determines if he stays in New Orleans…….