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Nike Hoop Summit World Team Report

Nate Duncan takes a look at the NBA prospects on the World Team after last week’s Nike Hoop Summit featuring the top players both domestically and abroad.

Nate Duncan

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This is the second part of our Nike Hoop Summit report, focusing on the World team. As with our Team USA report, the players are divided into tiers based on likely NBA potential.

Potential Stars

Emmanuel Mudiay, Point Guard, Committed to SMU

The most important thing to understand about Mudiay is that he absolutely is a point guard despite being 6’5 in shoes with a 6’8.5 wingspan. He has a very solid handle and can execute advanced dribble moves and hesitations in the pick-and-roll, as well as create separation with his crossover. He has above-average quickness, although he is more a very good athlete than a nuclear Derrick Rose, John Wall, or Russell Westbrook type.

Mudiay was relatively unimpressive in some of the practices I saw, but his stated plan was to get his teammates involved more in practice before taking over in the game. That is ultimately what he did, shooting 8-18. That could have been much better had he not missed a few bunnies at the rim, but he certainly showed the ability to penetrate and push the ball for layups on the break even against the athletic Team USA roster.

The Congo native’s jump shot is not great, and his range at this point is much more midrange than FIBA 3. But his form is solid and he is beyond the point where players like Derrick Rose and John Wall were with their jumpers at an equivalent stage. Mudiay is going to SMU next year, where he will be coached by Larry Brown. That should help him smooth out the rough edges of his game, assuming he can get along with the demanding coach. Brown was the reason he went to SMU, so one would think it should work out well.

Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, Shooting Guard, Ukraine

The 16 year-old Mykhailiuk was already covered in detail in the first practice report, and I saw little to change my opinion later in the week. The Ukrainian’s only weaknesses are his physical strength* and propensity to take a few bad jumpers. In the game, one fairly ridiculous attempt from behind the backboard in the right corner earned him a seat on the bench for much of the contest. In total he played only 13 minutes. This was a shame because even right now he is a much better player than either Jamal Murray (32 minutes) and Brandone Francis (19 minutes), and might have helped boost the World’s 82 offensive efficiency.

*He has already filled out quite a bit in the last year or so, as evidenced by the below video from when he was 15.

As it was, Mykhailiuk still had a chance to show off some nice passes against the US press and get a couple of deflections that illustrated his quick hands on defense, but he finished 1-4, 0-3 on threes. Ultimately, Mykhailiuk looked the part of a future lottery pick. He speaks excellent English, and there is a decent chance he comes to the US to start college in the fall as one of the youngest freshman in the country.

In the meantime, the dunk contest footage at the start of this video provides an excellent idea of his athleticism.

Make sure to also read: Duncan’s scouting report on the USA’s top players in the Nike Hoop Summit

Karl Towns, Center, Committed to Kentucky

Towns had a disappointing game relative to his performance earlier in the week, as he only managed 17 foul-filled minutes as a result of some questionable calls. But it was telling that his absence was a major factor, as the World team played the US evenly when he was in there. He had two impressive blocks of shots in the air, including a helpside swat of a Jahlil Okafor jump hook up near the square of the backboard. He frustrated Okafor’s attempts to post him up as well, showing off his improved strength. Towns and Okafor even got into it at one point before he was unjustly charged with his fourth foul. It is noteworthy how much Towns has improved his ability to mix it up inside over last year’s Hoop Summit.

Offensively Towns had a nice catch and finish and a solid postup for a one-footed hook coming across the lane, but missed a couple other hooks inside. He did not get much chance to play pick-and-pop on the perimeter, and did not shoot a jumper during the game. Nevertheless his length, movement and shooting ability make him a very intriguing long-term prospect even if he never develops into a one-on-one post scorer.

It really is a tough call between Towns and Okafor for best big man prospect in the class of 2015. Okafor has the better pedigree and feel for the game, and will be in the perfect four-out system to showcase his skills at Duke next year. Towns is going to what will be a very crowded Kentucky frontcourt, and John Calipari may not really use his shooting ability at all.* I fully expect Okafor to have the better year next year, but I may slightly prefer Towns as a long-term prospect at this point due to his shooting and potential as a rim-protector.

*He could conceivably deploy some enormous units with Towns at the 4 since he can shoot, then go with a massive zone defense, but that does not seem like Calipari’s style.

Potential NBA Rotation Players

Trey Lyles, Power Forward, Committed to Kentucky

In other settings, such as the U-19 World Championships last July, Lyles was able to use his strength and footwork to get buckets inside. But this was not Lyles’ best week, as he proved unable to get much going during practices or the game. He was usually matched up with Towns in practice, and proved unable to overpower him or really get clean looks off against his length. He had to resort to a lot of fadeaway jumpers, which predictably did not convert at a high rate. He had similar problems finishing inside against Team USA’s athleticism during the game, as he shot 3-11 despite taking all of his shots in the lane. Lyles did finish with 11 rebounds, five offensive, in his 25 minutes. His jumper was not really falling this week, but he has solid form and looks comfortable enough shooting in the 15 foot range.

Lyles moves well laterally for his 250 pound size, playing at the top of the World’s 3-2 zone that pressured upcourt to take time off the shot clock. He also has a solid rebounding mentality and hits the glass hard. He too has been compared to Carlos Boozer, but I think he has more quickness and a higher skill level at this point than Boozer did, as well as much more length with his 7’3.5 wingspan and 6’10 height in shoes. He does not really block shots, nor is he going to dunk on people, but he is by no means a bad athlete either. These attributes mean that Lyles should be able to at least avoid being a defensive liability in the NBA.

In Related: Basketball Insiders’ NBA Draft page

Damien Inglis, Combo Forward, France

The French small forward has an NBA body and then some at a chiseled 6’8, 240, with a 7’3 wingspan and huge hands. Unfortunately, he does not play with the greatest intensity, so a lot of his athleticism doesn’t quite translate. At no point during the week would one have described him as playing particularly hard. The effort was not bad, but it did not stand out either. The contrast between he and the American wings one year his junior was striking. That was exacerbated by the fact he did not appear to have much feel or many moves aside from simply a three point set shot.

That shot does appear to be a weapon though. He has a very compact release and has clearly worked on not bringing the ball down to his waist before shooting, although he doesn’t have the highest release point. He is shooting 40 percent on threes on limited attempts in French Pro A competition, and while he may not become quite that level of shooter in the NBA he should at least be a threat from beyond the arc. He does not turn 19 until May, so he has plenty of time to work on his skills.

Because he is not a particularly gifted scorer or ballhandler, Inglis is perhaps most intriguing as a small ball spotup four. He should be able to hold up strengthwise at that position, and did not get taken advantage of under the basket at the bottom of the World’s 3-2 zone. He is not really a shotblocker though, nor did he particularly impress on the boards.

If Inglis can up his intensity level and prove he can hold up as a four, he becomes a much more intriguing prospect.

Fringe/Second Round NBA Players

Clint Capela, Center, Switzerland

Capela was being talked about as a lottery pick before the week started, but that would be a major reach in my opinion. This is now the second time I’ve seen him in person after the 2013 adidas Eurocamp in Treviso, and he did not stand out in either setting. Lyles, Towns, and Inglis started over him, and rightfully so based on their practice performances.

At 6’11, 222 with a 7’4 wingspan, Capela’s skills are limited to blocking shots and finishing alley oops around the rim.* He has a herky jerky jump shot that actually went in a few times, but it did not look smooth enough to be a major weapon for him. He looks like his skill level is always going to be more center than power forward, and that is a problem given how thin he is.

*He did have one nice layin finish from behind the backboard during the game, but that was an aberration.

Most concerning is Capela’s lack of feel overall. He was the most likely World player to make mental errors, although there may have been a bit of a language barrier involved there as well. During the game, he picked up four fouls in the first half with some silly over the backs. Throughout the week he did not prove particularly adept at finding creases for guards to give him dumpoffs, and his few postups invariably resulted in wild misses or turnovers. He also is very weak right now. In a 2 on 2 drill in which the defense switched the pick and roll, Capela proved totally unable to post up even against guards.

Capela has some potential due to his length and solid if not outstanding jumping ability, measured at 31 inches at the 2013 Eurocamp. However, his skill level and feel leave a lot to be desired. I do not see him as better than an early second-round prospect at this point.

College/International Players

Jamal Murray, Combo Guard, Canada

Murray goes 6’4.5 with a 6’8 wingspan, weighing in at 195 pounds. His best attributes are his shooting ability and his February 1997 birthday, making him a year younger than every player in the game but Mykhailiuk. He is very steady for his young age, earning a game-high 32 minutes.* And he also is an excellent shooter for a high school junior, with easy range out to the FIBA line. During one impressive sequence, he drained two consecutive threes as the pick and roll ballhandler when his man went under the screen. Murray is not really a point guard, but can handle the ball and bring it up in a pinch. He largely handled the ball for the World team as the closest thing to a point guard when Mudiay sat.

*This may have been aided by the fact that coach Roy Rana is also the coach of the Canadian junior teams.

The Canadian’s biggest weakness is a lack of athleticism. He does not appear to be a particularly good leaper, nor does he create separation off the dribble without a screen. He could certainly stand to improve his defense, which is a worry given his lack of elite quickness. Murray was guarding Tyus Jones at the end of the game and got torched a couple of times by him one-on-one as Team USA put the game away in the fourth quarter.

It is hard to give Murray a high ceiling due to his lack of athleticism, but he should make a nice college player with his shooting ability. An NBA future may be too much to ask unless he can develop into a J.J. Redick level shooter and improve his quickness.

James Birsen, Small Forward, Turkey/Fenerbahce

I first saw Birsen at the 2012 Eurocamp, when he was still 17. Since then he has grown to 6’10 and gotten a little stronger, but he is a below average athlete and probably always will be. He has not improved as much as one would have hoped in the last two years, despite the fact he plays in the Euroleague for Turkish powerhouse Fenerbahce. He has nice vision and willingly takes FIBA threes with solid form, although these did not fall at a particularly outstanding rate for him during the week.

Birsen can put the ball on the deck but lacks the quickness to get by his man, often having to settle for a contested jumper near the free throw line with his man still in front of him. He will throw the occasional incisive pass and willingly moves the ball, but his lack of explosion really limits his upside. He seems to fit the stereotype of the old school Euro small forward: someone who is tall and can shoot but lacks the athleticism to play on the wing or as a big. He logged a number of minutes as a smallball four with the World big men in foul trouble, but it is not his natural position.

As a smart player in a good program who already has some high-level experience, Birsen might be worth a draft and stash late in the second round whenever he eventually comes out. If he becomes an absolute money shooter and gets strong enough to mix it up inside, it’s possible he could find a role in the NBA. But it is likely that his limited physical profile will prevent that from happening.

Nikola Jokic, Center, Serbia/Mega Vizura

Jokic might have been the most skilled big man at the Hoop Summit when you consider his outside shooting, but his complete lack of strength and explosion really limit his NBA future. The 19 year old was reportedly very solid in the first two practices, and he showed flashes of that later in the week. He is deadly in the post when he gets a smaller player switched onto him, and is an excellent shooter out to the FIBA arc, even on pick and pops.

But it really is hard to see him surviving on the interior in the NBA. Although he somehow weighed in at 253 lbs, he sure doesn’t look it. He is thin, but also has zero muscle definition and can’t jump at all. At 6’11 with a 9’3 standing reach, he still is barely able to dunk even when wide open. And challenging shots is not his forte either; for comparison, look how much higher Towns gets on this dunk despite their similar standing reaches.

Jokic was also totally overmatched in post defense against Jahlil Okafor during the game.

Perhaps this sounds harsh, but Jokic is being talked up as an NBA prospect and it is hard to see how he gets there unless he can really improve his athleticism. Given how his body looks, that does not seem to be in the offing even if he does hit the weights.

Gao Shang, Wing, China

Gao was somewhat superior to recent Chinese prospects at the Hoop Summit, as he at least did not look totally out of place in the practices. He has a nice release on his jumper and can drain international threes. He earned the nickname “G-Money” from the coaching staff since he compiled the best record in the shooting drills. At 6’7, 220 he is muscular and doesn’t get pushed around.

Gao is not a particularly skilled dribbler or passer, and was not really able to finish inside either. He moves his feet pretty well, but still has below-average NBA athleticism. Unfortunately, he required an interpreter which did not help in picking up some of the schemes, and he only played three minutes in the game. Nevertheless, one NBA scout remarked to me that he killed the World team’s momentum early in the fourth quarter as the US broke away from a 61-61 tie at the end of three. Gao is not really an NBA prospect, but should have a reasonable international career.

Brandone Francis, Shooting Guard, Committed to Florida

Francis turns 20 in September, but the Florida commit was not really able to make an impact here.  He is a shooting guard with good form on his jumper, but does not appear to have FIBA range yet.  That jumper is his best attribute, as his body is a little doughy at 6’4.5″, 208.  He doesn’t have a lot of explosion or ability to get by guys off the dribble, nor did he really make any great passes during the week.  He should have a nice college career, but an NBA or even high-level international future would be a major surprise.

A Cautionary Note

It is important to remember that we are dealing with just a few practices here, and thus a rather small sample size. For instance, I wrote earlier that Justise Winslow struggled to finish non-dunks inside. This was based on a sample of about eight shots over the course of the week. Obviously, much more evaluation is needed to arrive at a definitive evaluation of these prospects, especially in separating out the upper echelon.

Nevertheless, in-person scouting trips like this prove quite valuable to gauge players’ athleticism, see their work habits and how they respond to coaching in practice, and get a sense of how they interact with their teammates.

Nate Duncan is an NBA analyst and attorney. He writes regular features for Basketball Insiders and chats weekly at 11 Eastern on Tuesdays.

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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.

Moke Hamilton

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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.

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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.

Shane Rhodes

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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.”

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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.

Ben Nadeau

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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.

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