The New York Knicks are arguably the least predictable team in the NBA heading into the 2016-17 season.
If their key contributors stay healthy – and granted, that’s a big ‘if’ – New York has a chance to flirt with 50 wins and possibly secure home-court advantage in first round of the playoffs. However, there is also a possibility that injuries will cripple the Knicks and they’ll fail to even approach a .500 record. There are very few teams in the league that have such a high ceiling and such a low floor. The only thing we know for certain regarding the 2016-17 Knicks: It will be fascinating to see how it all plays out.
Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 New York Knicks.
FIVE GUYS THINK
The Knicks took an aggressive approach this offseason, bringing in big names like Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Brandon Jennings and Courtney Lee to supplement Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis. While Rose, Noah and Jennings have proven themselves as quality players, each has struggled with significant injuries over the last few seasons and it’s fair to say each has lost some of the explosiveness that made them so effective in the past.
Despite the obvious health concerns, Rose expressed supreme confidence in the Knicks and their ability to compete at a high level this season.
“They’re high,” Rose said when asked what the expectations are for this team. “I mean, with these teams right now, they’re saying us and Golden State are the super teams, and they’re trying not to build that many super teams, and Adam Silver came out with the statement and this and that.”
Rose’s comment drew predictable backlash among those in and around the NBA. The Warriors have put together historic seasons and nearly won a second consecutive NBA title last season, while the Knicks are restocking with players that, while talented, are past their primes or dealing with injuries.
I won’t be stunned if the Knicks are more competitive than they have been in past seasons or if they win a playoff series or two, but I also think this team has a clear ceiling despite bringing in some notable talent this offseason.
3rd Place – Atlantic Division
– Jesse Blancarte
Good for Derrick Rose, believing with all his heart that the Knicks are a “super team” on par with the Golden State Warriors, but that’s not the way the rest of the world sees it – not even with the additions of Rose, Joakim Noah and Courtney Lee. However, it is more than fair to expect a drastically improved Knicks team, even if some of these new players can only give the team 60 healthy games a year. Noah looked like an also-ran a season ago, but that was more a result of the fire in his belly snuffing out than anything else. If he’s even remotely healthy, his chest-thumping, antagonistic style of play will help rejuvenate this squad (and the Madison Square Garden faithful) more than anything else. Rose should be super motivated to explode in a contract year, the undefendable Kristaps Porzingis will be another year along in his development and there’s little reason to believe Carmelo Anthony can’t still pour in 20+ points per game. They’re better than they were, but they’re still not a serious title contender.
3rd Place – Atlantic Division
– Joel Brigham
If you are depending on Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah to stay healthy for the balance of an 82-game season, you’re asking for a lot. For the Knicks, their thriving depends on exactly that. Sure, Phil Jackson made the offseason splash that many, including me, were looking for… The only thing is, at this point, we don’t know if it’s a belly flop or not. On paper, the Knicks look like an Eastern Conference contender, and if things break right, 50 wins and a division crown are within the realm of possibility. Still, relying on Rose and Noah to be the players they were three or four years ago doesn’t seem wise and without them each playing at a high level, the Knicks may be battling for one of the conference’s final playoff seeds once again. Of all players on the roster, Kristaps Porzingis is the one who is most capable of exceeding expectations. I’ll be interested in seeing whether he gets lost in the shuffle and stunted, or if playing with a few higher-caliber players will actually make the game easier for him. I’m willing to bet on the latter.
In the end, the smart money says that we have already seen the best of Rose and that something will go wrong in New York. I’d put the over/under on their win total at 44.5 and would expect both the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics to end up ahead by April.
3rd Place — Atlantic Division
– Moke Hamilton
There are three sides to every story; their side, your side and the truth. But what is the truth about the 2016-17 Knicks? Is this team a true playoff contender or has their best offseason in recent memory been overhyped by a fan base starving for success? On paper, the Knicks are undoubtedly better than last year’s unit that missed the playoffs, but members of the current roster are talking boldly about a return to title contention. It all comes down to how quickly the team buys into new head coach Jeff Hornacek’s system and how much usage the team can realistically count on from veteran free agent additions Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah. The Knicks will punch a ticket to the playoffs, but there’s still work to be done here.
3rd Place – Atlantic Division
– Lang Greene
I agree with my four colleagues: I see the Knicks improving after their busy offseason, but it’s hard to imagine New York seriously contending in the Eastern Conference or even contending for the Atlantic Division crown. The Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors seem like sure things, in my opinion, whereas this Knicks team has a ton of question marks surrounding them. Still, New York should make some significant progress this year and return to the postseason. They may even make some noise in the first round. That’s certainly a step in the right direction for this squad, who shouldn’t let unrealistic title expectations stop them from celebrating that fact.
3rd Place – Atlantic Division
– Alex Kennedy
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Carmelo Anthony
After a significant knee injury cost Anthony most of the 2014-15 campaign, there were legitimate concerns about whether he would be able to bounce back and return to form. Anthony quickly put those doubts to rest, re-establishing himself as not only the Knicks’ best offensive option but as one of the league’s most dangerous players with the ball in his hands. In fact, last season Anthony was one of just four players in the NBA to average at least 21 points, seven rebounds and four assists per game, alongside LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
Top Defensive Player: Joakim Noah
The Knicks have been either a “below average” or “terrible” defensive team for the better part of this millennium. Phil Jackson is hoping that Noah is a key piece in turning that reputation around. Noah has been severely limited by injuries the past two seasons, but prior to this recent slippage, he was an elite defender. In fact, Noah won the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award in 2013-14. He’s been named to the NBA’s All-Defensive Team on three occasions (2011, 2013 and 2014). He also finished in the top 10 in blocks twice. With few defensive-minded players on the roster, the Knicks are hoping Noah can prove he is still one of the league’s most feared defensive players.
Top Playmaker: Derrick Rose
The lack of a productive point guard has been a major issue in New York the last two seasons. The sad reality is that if Rose plays at even an average level next season, he would be a huge upgrade for the Knicks. Jose Calderon was arguably the NBA’s worst starting point last year. In order to be competitive in today’s NBA, it is imperative that you have a point guard who can break down his defender and penetrate into the heart of the defense to create opportunities for himself and his teammates. Calderon scored a total of 46 points in the paint over the 2,024 total minutes he played last season. Rose scored 453 points in the paint (10th-most in the league) over the 2,097 minutes he played. For his career, Rose averages 6.2 assists per game. Other than Brandon Jennings, no other player on the Knicks’ roster averages over three assists per game over their career.
Top Clutch Player: Carmelo Anthony
There are many new faces and big names on the this overhauled Knicks squad, but it is very safe to assume that when the game is on the line, the ball will end up in Anthony’s hands. Since the moment he arrived in NYC after being traded from Denver, Anthony has taken the vast majority of important attempts late in games. Unfortunately, despite establishing a reputation as a superior clutch player earlier in his career, Anthony has been remarkably inefficient in such situations over his last few seasons in New York. It was commonly believed that Anthony was worn down by the heavy burden he’s had to shoulder offensively and the massive minutes he’s been forced to play, leaving him with little left in his legs in fourth quarters. The Knicks hope that fewer minutes, more creative offensive sets and a vastly improved supporting cast will allow ‘Melo to regain his reputation as one of the NBA’s best closers.
The Unheralded Player: Courtney Lee
The traditional “counting” stats on the back of Lee’s basketball card won’t knock your socks off, but if you dig a little deeper, the value Lee provides is nearly impossible to miss. For instance, Lee is one of only two qualifying players to shoot above 37 percent from three-point territory each and every season this decade (Kyle Korver is the other). In addition, as Basketball Insiders’ own Alex Kennedy pointed out back in July, “Last season in Charlotte, Courtney Lee ranked first among qualified players on the Hornets in offensive rating (111.4), net rating (+6), true shooting percentage (57.6 percent) and assist ratio (18.9 percent). In the playoffs, Lee contested 12.1 shots per game, which not only ranked first among all Hornets but ninth among all postseason players. Charlotte’s top three lineups in terms of plus/minus in the playoffs all had one thing in common: Lee playing on the perimeter, either at shooting guard or small forward (when they went small). In fact, Charlotte had two of the top five lineups of the 2016 postseason and both featured Lee.”
Top New Addition: Joakim Noah
Considering how much the Knicks have invested in Noah ($72 million over four years), they are certainly counting on him to be their best new addition. As noted above, Noah is a wonderful defender, but that’s certainly not the only skill he brings to the table. Even when nursing injuries, Noah is still an elite rebounder and passer. Last season, Noah led all centers in assist rate (24.2 percent). Marc Gasol was second at 18.9 percent. No Knicks point guard has averaged more than five assists per game since Raymond Felton in 2013-14; Noah averaged 5.4 assists per game that same season. The last time Noah was completely healthy back in 2013-14, he was the best center in the NBA. It’s worth noting that he is actually the last Eastern Conference player not named LeBron James to finish in the top five in MVP voting.
– Tommy Beer
WHO WE LIKE
- Kristaps Porzingis
Ask nearly any New Yorker and they’ll likely tell you it’s almost impossible not to like Mr. Porzingis. His rookie season was nothing short of a revelation. His inspiring play and put-back dunks electrified Madison Square Garden and revitalized an upset fan base. Despite last year being his first exposure to NBA-level competition, the skinny 20-year-old more than held his own. In fact, Porzingis became the first rookie in NBA history to tally at least 100 blocks, 75 made three-pointers and 50 steals in his first pro season. Still, Knicks fans are so excited because it is clear that KP has yet to even scratch the surface of his ultimate upside.
- Brandon Jennings
The fact that Jennings is working his way back to 100 percent from such a significant injury (Achilles tear) is obviously concerning, but that was also the reason the Knicks were able to secure his services at a discount ($5 million over one year). Encouragingly, Jennings is only 27 years old and avoided a major setback last season. The Knicks have very little depth at point guard, and thus would have to lean heavily on Jennings if Rose were to miss any time with an injury. His career averages are impressive (15.5 points and 5.9 assists). Can he approach those numbers again?
- Guillermo “Willy” Hernangomez
The Knicks traded for Guillermo “Willy” Hernangomez on draft day last summer, after the Philadelphia 76ers nabbed him with the 35th overall pick in the 2015 draft. He had one year left on his contract in Spain and played well during his final season for Real Madrid. The Knicks signed him to a very affordable contract ($5.8 million over four years) this summer. Willy is not overly athletic, which may make it difficult for him to defend quicker big men and finish at the rim in the NBA, but he is a grinder who plays hard and is willing to doing the dirty work. He’s also shown impressive improvement during the early stages of his career. If Hernangomez can develop into even a spot rotation player, he’ll provide significant value for the Knicks, as he will account for less than two percent of the Knicks’ salary cap each season through 2020.
- Lance Thomas
Thomas is one of those often underappreciated “glue guys” who end up playing significant minutes on competitive teams. Thomas was enjoying the best season of his career in 2015-16 before a concussion and other nagging injuries cost him most of the second half of the year. Still, he showed enough to persuade the Knicks that he was worth the lucrative four-year, $27 million contract they handed him. Thomas’ values lies in his defensive versatility and newfound three-point stroke. Thomas made over 40 percent of his three-pointer attempts last season, and knocked down a total of 44 three-balls in 2015-16. This is particularly remarkable because Thomas had attempted only one three-pointer over the first three seasons of his NBA career and his four years at Duke combined.
– Tommy Beer
SALARY CAP 101
The Knicks went below the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap this summer, using their spending power on players like Joakim Noah, Courtney Lee, Mindaugas Kuzminskas, Brandon Jennings and Marshall Plumlee. They also landed Derrick Rose in trade and re-signed Lance Thomas. Now fully spent, the Knicks have 14 guaranteed players with one open spot – potentially for Ron Baker, J.P. Tokoto or Chasson Randle.
Looking ahead, the Knicks project to have roughly $22.2 million in spending power next summer, with a projected salary cap of $102 million. Rose, who will be a free agent next July, will take up New York’s space if they retain his rights. Carmelo Anthony is one of the few players in the league with a true no-trade clause. New York will take their rookie-scale option on Kristaps Porzingis before November.
– Eric Pincus
The Knicks ranked near the bottom of the league (25th overall) in offensive efficiency last season, scoring just 104.6 points per 100 possessions. With the addition of Rose, Lee and Jennings – in addition to bench contributors such as Maurice Ndour and Mindaugas Kuzminskas – New York should be vastly improved on the offensive end in 2016-17. And although the downside to bringing in veterans is the potential health concerns, the upside is the experience and savvy they bring to the table. Carmelo Anthony has experienced his greatest success in NBA when surrounded by veterans who took control of the team. The Knicks have won over 50 games only once this millennium, and that was back in 2012-13 when they fielded the “oldest team in NBA history” featuring Kurt Thomas, Rasheed Wallace and Jason Kidd among others. Joakim Noah establishing himself as a leader in the locker room and holding teammates accountable could pay major dividends on and off the floor.
– Tommy Beer
Two of the biggest issues in New York in years past have been inadequate point guard play and lackluster defensive effort. Phil Jackson hopes he addressed these two major flaws with his acquisition of Derrick Rose and signing of Joakim Noah. If the Knicks ever want to be considered serious contenders, they need to improve defensively. New York has allowed fewer than 108 points per 100 possessions just three times over the last 12 seasons. Noah brings defense, aggressiveness and intensity – three qualities that have been sorely lacking in New York for some time.
– Tommy Beer
THE BURNING QUESTION
Can the Knicks stay healthy?
Based on talent alone, the Knicks have the potential to be a special team. Consider this: Only five Eastern Conference players have finished in the top five in NBA MVP voting this entire decade, and three of those players are currently Knicks (Rose, Anthony and Noah). Last season, ‘Melo proved he is still an elite scorer and played arguably the best all-around ball of his career. Rose was frustratingly inconsistent and oftentimes inefficient, but showed flashes of his old, explosive self. Porzingis is already further along than anyone could have hoped and his upside is obvious. The issue is whether the team’s core pieces can stay healthy. If the injury bug begins to bite, the season may quickly be derailed. Here’s a discouraging fact: Rose has actually played in more games over the last two seasons (117) than Anthony (112), Noah (96) and Jennings (89). If the Knicks can beat the odds avoiding injuries, they have a legit chance to defy expectations and make some noise in 2016-17.
– Tommy Beer
David Fizdale Building Bonds With Kristaps Porzingis and Knicks Young Guards
David Fizdale figured out that winning in the NBA requires deep connections between coach and player.
It barely took David Fizdale a week to take the New York Knicks to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Next time they’re there, though, hopefully they’ll be playing.
In case you missed it, the newly minted head coach for Team Porzingis took Frank Ntilikina, Emmanuel Mudiay and Damyean Dotson to Boston to take in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals between the Celtics and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The stated purpose of the trip, according to Fizdale, was to give his young guards some exposure to the intensity of playoff basketball. Unfortunately, for the Knicks, it’s the closest they’ve been to the playoffs since Carmelo Anthony famously had his fate-sealing dunk thrown back in his face by Roy Hibbert.
Fortunately for the Knicks, though, the field trip itself is indicative of the team having a head coach in place who understands one of the secrets to being successful in the NBA. In this business, personal relationships and bonds will go almost as far toward building a winning program and culture as talent alone.
Even without saying so directly, you can bet that Fizdale’s taking the trio of young Knicks to Boston was him putting actions to words that, at the very least, mean he’s consistent.
At the very most, though, they mean he’s sincere.
Part of what earned Fizdale the Knicks job in the first place was his ability to impress Steve Mills and Scott Perry with his candor and humility, especially as it relates to his famous falling out with Marc Gasol. Fizdale owned the fact that he himself did not try to be enough of a counselor and diffusor of the conflict between the two and sold Mills and Perry on the idea that he has grown from the experience.
Today, Fizdale told them, he understands that the responsibility of the head coach goes beyond drawing up plays.
As soon as he got the opportunity, Fizdale went out of his way to connect with his trio of young guards and reached out to Kristaps Porzingis to let him know that he was excited to coach him and looking forward to visiting him in Spain and Latvia.
Whether you believe that Porzingis is more an invention of the New York hype machine or truly the second coming of Dirk Nowitzki, the simple fact is that he is the only thing that the Knicks have going for them right now. What makes his situation a tad bit uncomfortable, however, is the fact that he wasn’t a fan of Phil Jackson and remains close to Carmelo Anthony.
Publicly, Porzingis has been lukewarm toward the Knicks organization and hasn’t committed to signing a rookie extension at first opportunity. Usually, a player coming off of his rookie contract is eager to cash in at his earliest opportunity and, historically, hasn’t often re-signed with his incumbent team after turning down said extension.
At the very least, things between Porzingis—who has let it be known that winning right now is his priority—and the Knicks seem to be at an impasse. And prior to his dismissal, Jeff Hornacek suggested that the franchise was leaning toward not attempting to re-sign Porzingis to an extension this summer and instead allowing him to become a restricted free agent next summer.
The strategy makes a lot of sense for the Knicks. In theory, they could creatively manipulate the salary cap to take advantage of the cap space that they could maintain by tendering Porzingis a one-year qualifying offer next summer and using their cap space to sign an unrestricted free agent prior to re-signing Porzingis. In the alternative, signing Porzingis to an extension this summer would eliminate that possibility.
Again, not signing Porzingis to the extension this summer makes a lot of sense from a team building perspective, but it does also increase the possibility that Porzingis could end up leaving the team in July 2020. If he truly is unhappy with the franchise—and there are many that believe that he is—forgoing the extension, accepting the one-year qualifying offer next summer and then leaving as an unrestricted free agent in 2020 is exactly the course that he would have to take to secure his freedom sooner.
That, obviously, is a nightmare scenario for the Knicks.
Fizdale, though, seems to have been awoken to the possibility.
Since his introductory press conference, Fizdale has extolled the virtues of the Latvian big man. Fizdale called Porzingis “the future of the NBA” and let it be known that he is planning on making multiple trips to Europe this summer to check up on Porzingis and his rehabilitation. He called Porzingis an MVP-caliber player and, apparently, has all the belief in the world that he can help the Knicks return to prominence in the Eastern Conference.
This past week, Porzingis confirmed that he and Fizdale had spoken. Porzingis said the two had a “great conversation” and that he was “excited” to begin the next chapter.
Although it was the first time Porzingis made any public comments about Fizdale, the tweet may have actually said more about Fizdale than it did about Kristaps.
At the most basic level, a unionized workforce is generally an interaction between “employees” and “management,” which can be difficult to navigate as a member of either class.
In professional sports, a head coach is the nexus between the front office—whom most players look at as managers who are divorced from the day-to-day workings of the locker room—and the player personnel.
Put more simply, the coach is someone who is expected to wear two hats. He’s more a member of management than he is a player. He needs to have the trust and ear of his front office, assist in making important player personnel decisions and, simultaneously, convince the members of the team to trust him, listen to him and play for him.
From a relationship standpoint, walking that tightrope isn’t easy to do. Most former players who become head coaches have an inside track when it comes to endearing themselves to their locker rooms, but the difficult dynamic and serving as a confidant of both the front office and the locker room is something that many coaches have difficulty managing.
In a perfect world, we’d like to believe that the only thing that matters is the result. Once upon a time, Charles Barkley and Kevin Johnson were able to take the Phoenix Suns to levels the franchise hadn’t seen, despite their being polar opposites in terms of personality and values. Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal had much greater success despite their lack of personal affinity for one another.
Today, however, we’ve seen the opposite. With the superstar of today having learned that he can control his own future and wield power and influence over his franchise, it has become apparent that they’ll want to find themselves playing with players they like and for coaches they have bonds with.
Fizdale learned that the hard way.
And now, with the Knicks, his attempt to become a personable leader of men will begin anew.
It started with a simple field trip and continued by picking up the phone to make a long distance call to Latvia.
At least to this point, Fizdale has traveled the extra mile.
When he sat across the table from Perry and Mills, he told them that he understood it necessary to form personal relationships and bonds with his players and how that can go a long way toward building a winning culture.
Sure, the Knicks have a long journey ahead of them, but even with the tiniest of actions, Fizdale has already begun charting the course.
Wendell Carter Jr. — The Future at the Five
Duke’s Wendell Carter could be the future of the center position in the NBA, writes Shane Rhodes.
The future of the NBA center resides in the 2018 NBA Draft. Only it may not be who you think.
The incoming class has more than a few standouts bigs: Deandre Ayton, Marvin Bagley III, Mohamed Bamba and others all have flashed dominance throughout their time at school. Ayton has the body to thrive in the NBA, Bagley is an uber-athlete who is constantly working and Bamba has the skills to be an elite defender at the next level.
However, as versatility grows in prominence and importance throughout the modern NBA, there may be no one more prepared than Wendell Carter Jr.
While he hasn’t seen the same hype that envelops the aforementioned trio, Carter, standing at 6-foot-10, has the tools to be one of the next great NBA big men. By virtue of playing with Bagley, Carter’s stat line — 13.5 points, 9.1 rebounds and two assists — doesn’t exactly jump off the page. However, while some excelled in one specific area, Carter did a little bit of everything during his lone season at Duke.
“I knew what I could do, I knew how I could affect the game without necessarily scoring the ball,” Carter told Basketball Insiders. “So I did those things. I did those things exceptionally and I just found a way to stand out from others without having to put the ball in the basket.”
Carter, with his combination of size and high basketball IQ, has what it takes to be a multifaceted threat on the offensive side of the ball. Not only can he post or face up on the block and back down his opponents, but Carter has soft hands, can finish near the basket with both his left and right with finesse and has a multitude of moves he can turn to should he find trouble. He is also smart enough to recognize and know where he should be on the floor and when, whether he be cutting to the basket, setting the screen for another ball handler, or otherwise.
An exceptional shooter for his size, Carter posted an effective field goal percentage of 59.1 percent while netting 41.3 percent of his shots from three and 73.8 percent from the free throw line. And while he wasn’t given many opportunities to show it, Carter can be a force in the pick-and-roll as well, both as a pick-and-pop shooter or as a big man rolling to the basket.
In a non-scoring capacity, Carter is a capable passer as well. His high IQ allows for quick reads when he has the ball and, more often than not, he makes the right pass accurately and on time. While he averaged just two assists during the season, his passing ability will be a more than helpful at the next level and, with higher skilled shooters, Carter could net a few assists every game. Carter did well boxing out his man and going for the rebound as well. He averaged 2.9 offensive rebounds per game 13.5 total rebounds per 40 minutes.
Again, because of Bagley and other talented scorers, Carter took on more of a secondary role offensively. He believes, however, that it was a boon for his NBA prospects and prepared him for the next level.
“I think it did wonders for me,” Carter said. “I think it showed that I’m able to play with good players and still maintain my own.”
Defensively, Carter provides switchability as well as versatility at the next level. Playing either the power forward or center positions, he has both the size to bang down low with the bigs as well as the quickness to keep up and defend when switched on to smaller guards.
With a wingspan stretching 7 feet 4.5 inches, Carter has the length to protect the rim but is light enough on his feet to close out on and contest shooters around the perimeter. He rotates well and will rarely give up on plays. He will continuously fight for position if players attack him in the post. His hands are always active as well, with good timing on both blocks and steals. Across 37 games with the Blue Devils, Carter posted a defensive rating of 92.8.
While he is not a prospect without faults, Carter is more prepared than most for the NBA. With some seasoning at the next level, he could be a force to go up against as a player who can attack you, both offensively and defensively, from multiple different angles.
Carter has already met with multiple teams, both in and outside the lottery, including the Atlanta Hawks, Memphis Grizzlies, Dallas Mavericks, Chicago Bulls, New York Knicks, Philadelphia 76ers, Charlotte Hornets and the Minnesota Timberwolves. Regardless of where he lands, however, Carter knows he’ll be ready.
“You’re not just playing the game, you’re playing for a business,” Carter said. “And I’m ready for it.”
NBA Daily: With No Regrets, Hamidou Diallo Is Primed For Next Step
Hamidou Diallo spoke at the NBA Draft Combine about his decision to return to school, what he learned and the advice he’s given to his teammates.
When potential first-rounders return to collegiate basketball, it’s typically about raising their stock. Every year, somebody goes back to school and, more often than not, that player goes higher in the draft the following year. It’s a nice story, sure, but it doesn’t always end up that way. Not everybody goes back to school and dominates. Not everybody goes from a fringe first-rounder to a no-brainer lottery pick.
In some instances — even despite receiving real, tangible on-court experience — they fall even lower.
For Hamidou Diallo, that’s exactly what happened — still, he’s not sweating it at all.
“Everybody’s different — let me just start off by saying that,” Diallo said at the NBA Draft Combine last week. “Everybody’s a different player, everybody has different needs. Everybody has a different family base. Everybody’s put in different situations. I’m just happy I was put in a situation I could make either or decision — go back to school or come out.
“I feel like I made the right decision and if I had to do it again, I’m doing the same thing — I’m going back to school and playing a year at Kentucky and trying to make it work.”
Coming out of high school, Diallo was ranked as the No. 11 prospect back in the class of 2017, a five-star athlete sought after by not just Kentucky, but many of Division-I’s annual royalty — Connecticut, Syracuse, Kansas, Arizona and Indiana — as well. During his senior season at Putnam Science Academy, Diallo averaged 19 points, six rebounds and three assists per game and his ability to play above the rim rightfully anointed him as a can’t-miss teenager.
Shortly after enrolling early at Kentucky in January, Diallo redshirted that spring semester in order to practice and lift with the Wildcats without sacrificing potential NBA stock or losing a year of eligibility. The plan was to learn the playbook, adjust to life at the collegiate level and prepare for the 2017-18 season. Of course, that decision did leave an interesting wrinkle in the mix. If he wanted to, Diallo could’ve gone pro without ever playing a game for Kentucky — and he almost did.
Diallo could only watch as De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Bam Adebayo took Kentucky all the way to the Elite Eight — but that didn’t stop the high-flyer from joining the three future lottery picks at the NBA Draft Combine last spring. Among other impressive physical measurements, Diallo took down a combine-best 44.5-inch vertical leap and left many franchises wondering if the then-18-year-old could be an intriguing first-round option..
Just minutes before the pre-set midnight deadline for collegiate returners, Diallo took his name out of the draft pool. While Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reported that Diallo didn’t receive a guarantee high enough to keep him in the draft — it still ultimately made sense to stick his original plan.
So, he went back to Kentucky.
Diallo would start all 37 games for the Wildcats this season, averaging 10 points, 3.6 rebounds and 1.2 assists in 24.8 minutes per game. Admittedly, it was not the breakout year most had anticipated from Diallo, but he played an important role for a Kentucky squad that won 26 contests before reaching the Sweet 16 as a No. 5 seed. But according to Diallo — now one year stronger, wiser and better prepared — his on-court action wasn’t the only big step he’s taken in this extensive process.
“I learned how to face adversity — I was put in points throughout the whole year where I had to face adversity, where I had to see what type of person I am,” Diallo said. “So I learned how to fight myself, and the biggest thing Coach Cal told me was how to fight myself. How to conquer yourself — that was the quote we heard a lot, each and every day.
“Conquer yourself — that’s one thing I learned how to do pretty well. When things aren’t going my way, I learned how to play through it and I learned how to play for the team — it was a great year for me.”
Still, presumably, Diallo will be drafted at a lower position than he would have a year ago — for better or for worse. In the grand scheme of things, Diallo looks like he has no regrets about trading a little money for a full season of collegiate basketball, gaining experiences and routines that will ideally shape a long, successful professional career. Currently, Diallo is projected all over the map — from No. 42 in Basketball Insiders’ 60-pick mock draft to No. 55 in NBADraft.net’s most recent edition.
Even with his draft fate soundly undecided at this time, Diallo still offered support for fellow prospective draftee Anfernee Simons, a 6-foot-3 guard that spent the year training at IMG Academy instead of in Division-I.
“100%, I support him, I’m all for him,” Diallo said. “Coming out, some guys are just not into college as much. Some guys want to go on to be a pro, it’s been his dream ever since he was young. He sees himself as one of the best players in the draft and for him to make the jump.
“I’m happy for him, maybe it becomes a trend, maybe it doesn’t — but for a guy to be chasing a dream, I can’t be nothing but happy for him.”
Diallo himself signed with an agent in April, which means he can’t return to Kentucky for another season — there’s no turning back now. Once again, Diallo measured well at the NBA Draft Combine, but he still declined to participate in the 5-on-5 portion, opting to leave some mystery in the tank ahead of his private workouts. Although Diallo could’ve certainly used the boost from a stellar scrimmage performance in Chicago, he’s always stuck to his plan — no reason to change his mind now.
Wherever Diallo ends up being selected in June, he’ll know that it’s just the next step in a particularly unusual road to the NBA. And whoever drafts Diallo will gain a hyper-athletic 19-year-old with all the physical tools to become a tenacious defender and a talented scorer. Detractors may point to his below average rate from three-point range last season (33.8 percent), but he also notched plenty of impressive individual outings along the way — like his 22-point, eight-rebound, one-steal and two-block effort in the NCAA Tournament’s second round.
For those that continue to sleep on Diallo, he’ll be as ready as ever to prove them wrong for the indefinite future — now, he just needs his chance. But when Diallo was asked about any advice he had imparted on P.J. Washington and Jarred Vanderbilt, two of Kentucky’s water-testing youngsters, he offered up something that’s clearly driven him since he went back to school.
“For P.J. and Jarred, I went through the process last year, I mean, just make the right decision for you and your family,” Diallo said. “Nobody can tell you what’s right, you’re going to be the one that’s gonna have to live it. So, if you feel like it’s right for you to leave, then so be it. If you feel like it’s right for you to go back to school, then go back to school.
“But don’t let anyone dictate that decision for you, just have you and your family sit down and make the right decision.”
At long last, that career-changing decision is about to finally pay off for Hamidou Diallo.