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Who Are the Keepers: Toronto Raptors

Nate Duncan breaks down the Toronto Raptors’ roster and figures out who their keepers are in the wake of their unexpected success this year.

Nate Duncan

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The 2013-14 season has been notable for the number of teams in a clear rebuilding mode. The first step in a rebuilding process, and one that must continue as long as the rebuild does, is to take stock of what talent the team has. There is one major question that should dominate the inquiry: Which of these players will be a part of our next good team? The player’s skill, age, contract and fit all enter into this discussion, as well as a realistic understanding of when the team can hope to be competitive again. This can generally be defined as the date a team’s young core is collectively projected to provide the greatest production. Finally, teams also need to consider the need to maintain flexibility rather than locking up a mediocre core.

The players are split into three different categories: “Buy His Jersey,” “Maybe, It Depends” and “Don’t Get Too Attached.” Players in the “Buy His Jersey” category are those who almost certainly should be in the team’s long-term plans, unless they are absolutely blown away by a trade offer for a superstar. Such players must either be under team control for quite a while longer on a cheap contract, or project to be a championship-level starter or better once their contract ends. The “Maybe, It Depends” category is reserved for players who have shown some promise, but are not necessarily locks to still be in town when the team is next ready to compete. It all depends on how these players develop and their contract situation. Many players in this category are on rookie contracts; once those end, they can become relative albatrosses if re-signed for more than their production would warrant. “Don’t Get Too Attached” is for players who are very unlikely to be a part of franchise’s next good team. In some cases it is because these players have demonstrated that they aren’t very good and don’t really have the potential to improve. But even solid players can appear on this list due to their age, contract status or fit.

Today we look at perhaps the most intriguing team in the league approaching the trade deadline, the Toronto Raptors. The Raptors appeared to have few long-term pieces coming into the season. Deposed general manager Bryan Colangelo had bequeathed little long-term flexibility on replacement Masai Ujiri. After the Raptors started the year looking like an also-ran even in the terrible Eastern Conference, Ujiri traded small forward Rudy Gay, center Aaron Gray and power forward Quincy Acy to Sacramento for point guard Greivis Vasquez, power forward Patrick Patterson, small forward John Salmons and center Chuck Hayes. The plan appeared to be to let Toronto’s younger players grow into larger roles while shopping Toronto’s remaining veterans and gleaning a top 2014 draft pick.

But a funny thing happened after the trade: the Raptors started playing really well. Since the Gay trade on December 8, the Raptors have a plus 5.1 point differential and a 23-12 record. In that time frame, Toronto ranks ninth in offense, fifth in defense and fourth in overall scoring margin per 100 possessions. Sporting a 28-24 overall record, they are the clear favorite for the third seed in the East. One would think a first-year general manager would be ecstatic at turning a lottery team into the third seed in the conference while simultaneously dumping long-term salary. Clearly, Ujiri is to be lauded for doing so. But on the other hand, the team’s success may well have made his long-term mission far more complicated. Fans of Toronto’s perpetually downtrodden franchise would likely bristle at any moves that hurt a team on track for a long-awaited playoff berth—and they might be right to bristle, given the way the team has played the last two months. There is some possibility that this performance could be real, and the Raptors should be looking to add to this core.

Yet despite their statistical success, it is hard to see this core competing for a championship sans superstar.* What’s worse, the Raptors’ success this year hurt their chances of acquiring such a player in the draft. In this context, identifying the keepers on the Raptors is especially difficult. Despite their success this year, they are in some ways closer to a lottery team in terms of the timeline for the keepers on their roster. Indeed, there are few three seeds in history that one would even write this analysis for.

*Toronto may be more likely than some teams to underperform their regular season results in the playoffs due to the fact that their bench has been a key to their post-Gay success, an advantage that is mitigated in the playoff crucible as starters play more minutes for opposing teams.

That said, being fourth in the league in net rating with a team that is young enough to provide internal growth in the coming years is no joke. While retaining free agent point guard Kyle Lowry is a risk because he may bolt after the season, it is also a risk to trade him and not find out what this team may become. This is especially so since Lowry is unlikely to return much in trade due to his free agent status. After much thought, I believe the best course of action is to keep this team together through the playoffs and find out how good it actually is. While the answer to that question is likely “a distant third in the East,” there are enough indicators to make it worthwhile to explore the possibility that the upside may be higher. It will be much easier to determine how to approach the offseason armed with more information than the 35 games since the Gay trade.

Buy His Jersey:

DeMar DeRozan
Age: 24
Contract: 4 years, $38,000,000, includes player option for 2016-17

DeRozan’s rookie extension, which kicked in this year, was initially panned by most analysts. But he has lived up to that contract so far this year. While he still has a slightly below average .522 True Shooting Percentage, he is still a valuable player because he soaks up 28 percent of Toronto’s possessions with a low 9.1 percent turnover rate. The Raptors have outscored opponents by 7.2 points per 100 possessions in DeRozan’s minutes since the Gay trade, and he has amassed an 18.2 PER on the year that ranks fifth among shooting guards. With that position in particular experiencing a dearth of star players, DeRozan is even more valuable. While he was lumped in with Toronto’s albatross contracts when Ujiri took office, DeRozan has proved worth his salary so far in 2013-14. He is just beginning his prime and has proved very durable so far in his career. He should be around for the long haul.

Jonas Valanciunas
Age: 21
Contract: Rookie Contract, expires 2016.

Much was expected of the Lithuanian after a dominant Summer League, but he has been a mild disappointment in nearly all areas. His 14.7 PER is a little below average, and his league-average True Shooting percentage is also below expectations. He has not been particularly effective defending the rim either, a disappointment considering his enormous size and reasonable quickness for his position. Overall, the Raptors have been 6.4 points/100 worse defensively in Valanciunas’ minutes since the Gay trade, although the offense has ticked up by 3.1 points/100 when he plays.

That said, Valanciunas is clearly a keeper. He has two more years on his rookie deal and is only 21. Given his physical profile and tools, he should develop into an upper-echelon center. If he does not appear on that path in two years, the Raptors will have an interesting decision to make on how much to pay him. But all indications right now is that he is part of the plan for the future, and rightly so despite the somewhat disappointing results this year.

Maybe, It Depends

Amir Johnson
Age: 26
Contract: 2 years, $13,500,000, last year $5 million guaranteed.
Projected New Contract: 3-4 years, $7-11 million AAV

Despite a slight decline in his box score statistics (mostly his rebounding rate), Johnson may be having his best season. He has been a key to the Raptors’ excellent post-Gay defense, allowing opponents to shoot only 46.1 percent on the 7.4 field goals per game he contests around the basket. He has also started to flash three-point range this season; although he shoots only 26 percent from out there on 1.2 attempts per game his 43.7 percent midrange shooting makes one believe he could eventually be a threat out there. His shooting has also allowed him to play with Valanciunas as a power forward, and he is mobile enough to stay with most fours defensively. The only question regarding Johnson’s long-term future in Toronto is the fact that his contract expires at the end of next season.

Kyle Lowry
Age: 27
Contract: $6,210,000.
New Contract: 2-4 years, $7-11 Million AAV

Lowry really is the fulcrum of the Raptors’ team-building conundrum. He is a free agent this summer, and his ultimate fate in Toronto will be the bellwether for the direction of the franchise. The bulldog point guard out of Villanova is having a career year and absolutely should have made the All-Star team, but there are major questions about whether he can sustain this performance going forward and how much he will cost to retain.

A long-term deal in Toronto at over $10 million per year could kill any cap flexibility the Raptors may have in the future after Ujiri did such great work to remove the millstones on the roster. Plus, he could be just good enough to prevent them from obtaining a superstar in the draft, but exiting his prime and well overpaid once players like DeRozan, Valanciunas and Ross enter theirs (and the latter two require extensions).

Lowry could also leave in free agency, although it seems unlikely any of the teams with cap space would pay him eight figures over a four-year deal. Perhaps the ultimate outcome will be a Paul Millsap-type two-year, $20 million or so deal that would enable the Raptors to lock two more years at a fair price without killing their future. Much of course depends on how the Raptors do in the playoffs and whether it appears this team could potentially contend with internal improvement alone. If, as is likely, that is not the case, then Ujiri may have to swallow hard and let Lowry go.

Patrick Patterson
Age: 24
Contract: Rookie Contract, expires 2014.
Projected New Contract: 3-4 years, $3-7 Million AAV.

Patterson has been excellent with Toronto in advance of restricted free agency, sporting a 58 TS% and hitting 43.9 percent of his threes on the way to an 18.5 PER. He too has been a key for Toronto’s bench success, with a 9.5 net rating. His floor spacing clearly opens up the offense, as the Raptors score at a rate that would rank fourth best in the league with him on the floor. Meanwhile, they have also defended at a top three rate in his minutes.

Patterson has clearly been a big part of the team’s success since his arrival, but as a restricted free agent could easily be overpaid. Some team may really value his shooting and passable defense and rebounding at the four as he enters his prime and decide to overpay, in which case the Raptors will have a very difficult decision to make. One thought for keeping Patterson is that he can play big minutes as a third big man alongside either Johnson or Valanciunas, both of whom can play center while he stretches the floor at power forward. His free agency will certainly be an interesting litmus test of how much the new breed of NBA general managers really values shooting.

Terrence Ross
Age: 22
Contract: Rookie Contract, expires 2016.

As a former dunk champion and owner of a 51-point game, Ross might have one of the louder 11.5 PERs in league history. That said, not much has changed for Ross in his second year. He shoots a few more threes and is up to almost 40 percent on those, but he still never gets to the basket or the line in the halfcourt. He has by far the worst net rating (+2.8 points/100) of any of the Raptors’ main players since the Gay trade, and the worst defensive rating as well.

That said, Ross can shoot and can jump, and is only 22. The question is whether his ceiling is Gerald Green, or something more. He is under his rookie contract through 2016, so the Raptors have plenty of time to find out. But thus far is appears that stardom may not be in the cards, and he could certainly be traded if a deal for a better-defending veteran on the wing opens up in the next couple years.

Coach Dwane Casey

Casey is in the last year of his contract, but the way he has coached a team with average defensive talent to a number four league ranking in defense since the Gay trade is very impressive. If the Raptors had won all year at their post-Gay pace, he would be a leading candidate for Coach of the Year. He got a raw deal in Minnesota once upon a time, coaching one of the last Kevin Garnett teams to a .500 record and solid defensive showing before being fired. The team promptly went 12-30 under Randy Wittman after he was axed.

Casey has shown enough this season to prove he is an asset to the organization. One would think he would be retained, but Lionel Hollins can tell you that success in the last year of a contract is no guarantee of a return when new management is in place.

Don’t Get Too Attached

John Salmons
Age: 34
Contract: 2 years, $14,583,000, last year $1 million non-guaranteed.

Salmons is finally reaching the end of his horrendous contract signed with Milwaukee in the summer of 2010 after the much-loved Fear the Deer campaign. Considering his 9 PER this year, Toronto will surely cut him this summer to save approximately $6 million.

Landry Fields

Age: 25
Contract: 2 years, $12,500,000.

Fields’ three-year, $21 million contract signed in the summer of 2012 might be the absolute worst in the NBA right now. He has played only 274 minutes on the year with a 7.6 PER. His solid rookie year is looking like one of the great fluke seasons in NBA history.

Chuck Hayes

Age: 30
Contract: 2 years, $11,681,250.

Hayes is wildly overpaid under the full mid-level deal he was given by Sacramento immediately post-lockout in 2011, but he remains a player who is more than the sum of his box score parts. At the very least, he will forever star in every video tutorial graduate assistants compile for undersized post defenders.

Steve Novak
Age: 30
Contract: 3 years, $10,945,948.

Novak was the cost of doing business for getting Andrea Bargnani off Toronto’s books (and inexplicably picking up a first-round pick in the process from New York). He can shoot like crazy, but with a 5.8 percent total rebound percentage and three blocked shots on the season really doesn’t do the “four” part of the stretch four position. He is barely in the rotation and it only figures to get worse from here.

Tyler Hansbrough
Age: 28
Contract: 2 years, $6,509,235, last year non-guaranteed.

The story for Psycho-T has been much different this year than last, when he was part of the Pacers’ bench unit that single- (or perhaps five-) handedly lost the Eastern Conference Finals. In contrast to his terrible on/off numbers last year, since the Gay trade he has a better net rating than all but one Toronto starter. His True Shooting percentage is a career high by four points, as he has lowered his usage rate and increased his efficiency. Hansbrough’s activity has been much better defensively to the tune of the best post-Gay defensive rating on the team at 90.6 points/100. The next (and last) year of Hansbrough’s contract is only guaranteed for $1 million. While he might be worth the extra $2.3 million it would take to keep him in a vacuum, the Raptors have three superior free agents in Lowry, Patterson and Vasquez. With Hayes also under contract, paying so much for a fourth or fifth big man likely is not the most efficient use of that money. Whether he stays next year or not, the one-time college player of the year is not part of the Raptors’ long-term plans.

Greivis Vasquez

Age: 27
Contract: Rookie Contract, expires 2014.
Projected New Contract: 1-3 years, $2-3 Million AAV

General Greivis has now started at point guard for two NBA teams, and both could not trade him out of that role fast enough. While he runs the offense and has excellent vision, he is so bad defensively that he cannot really be a full-time starter. But he is a reasonable option as a higher-end backup who can step in and start in a pinch, and has been valuable in Toronto after D.J. Augustin, Julyan Stone and Dwight Buycks proved unable to provide competent backup point guard play. Vasquez may not be in Toronto for long, however, as he is a restricted free agent this summer and the money for his potential new contract may be needed elsewhere.

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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