It takes a lot to make it in professional sports.
Metrics are used to predict a player’s career path. Comparisons are made before you’ve even played a minute and suddenly your career has been categorized, cataloged and written for you.
Yes, it takes much more than being able to jump, run or score to make it in the NBA.
Bravery — Hamidou Diallo on the meaning of his name
With all the added pressure to perform at the highest level, other skills are needed to succeed. An acceptance to fail and learn from mistakes. A confidence to ask hundreds of questions, absent of the fear of appearing weak.
It takes a little of Oklahoma City Thunder rookie Hamidou Diallo’s namesake.
“Bravery,” Diallo told The Franchise when asked about the meaning behind his name — a west-African name from the country of Guinea.
Bravery to enter the University of Kentucky out of high school earlier than most incoming freshmen. Bravery to return to college after a redshirt season and prove it on the floor for NBA scouts. Bravery to make an impact on a team as a second-round pick.
By now, you are familiar with Diallo’s high-flying abilities. A windmill dunk in the Thunder’s Blue/White scrimmage. A monstrous baseline dunk last July in Summer League. What you may not be familiar with is his determination to be great.
Twice in the last week, Paul George described “Hami”–as the Thunder affectionately call Diallo–as “having that star power.”
“I think Hami has huge upside, big talent,” George said last week at practice. “He’s just gotta get all of it together and learn how to play at this level. He has that star power. He has that talent in him.”
Diallo has routinely pulled George aside during the Thunder’s training camp to pick the All-Star’s brain, something George is open in talking about. While Diallo possesses supreme athleticism, he understands that to make it from college to the pros takes more than God-given skills.
During a cutting and screen drill on the third day of camp, Diallo struggled with guarding George. No doubt frustrated, Diallo listened to George’s advice after the drill and rebounded well on the next go-around.
He has that star power. He has that talent in him.
– Paul George on Hamidou Diallo
It’s that level of desired improvement that caught Billy Donovan’s eye.
“He’s an outlier in my opinion,” Donovan said last week when asked about players who rely on athleticism in the NBA. “The thing that I really like about him is one, he’s got great toughness, he’s bright, and I think the other part with him is he knows how to play. I’ve been really, really impressed just with that. Extremely coachable and has a good feel for the game.”
This desire to learn and work goes back to college. Where Diallo’s drive was cultivated.
University of Kentucky assistant coach Kenny Payne noticed that drive in Diallo early on. A coach who’s history includes working with great players like Anthony Davis or Karl Anthony-Towns is no stranger to young athletic kids looking to improve their game.
“I think the first thing — Hami’s foundation of what he is right now is that he’s a phenomenal athlete,” Payne said in a phone interview with the Franchise in August. “He’s so young, and being that athletic and physically gifted, weightlifting, training and you put that on top of what he is already, you’ve got a great base to start at. Then when you add the movement to it, it’s only going to enhance who and what he is as a player.”
Any superb athlete coming to a basketball factory like Kentucky with teammates like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kevin Knox and De’Aaron Fox would have their hands full. After redshirting the 2016-17 season, Diallo learned from Kentucky’s system to fine tune his game. Chasing around future NBA lottery picks can be the best medicine for any player making the adjustment from college.
“Being at an environment like Kentucky where he plays against De’Aaron, Malik Monk,” Payne told the Franchise. “The competition side of it will not be a big adjustment. He’ll be used to it, he’ll be ready for it, he’ll embrace that part of it because that’s what he thrives at anyway.”
The work paid dividends in a short amount of time. With each passing week and month, Diallo improves each time you see him.
“I think that he works at it, I think he’s really focused in on it. With that being said, the next phase for him, the next two years is vital for him to grow on that same path. Because if he does, you’re talking about a complete basketball player now.”
From college to pre-draft workouts. From pre-draft workouts to Summer League. From Summer League to his rookie year, Diallo’s thirst for improvement remains unquenched.
“From college to the NBA is totally different,” Diallo told The Franchise back in September. “Plenty of things that you can get away with in college that you can’t get away with at this level. Here, everyone is a great athlete. You just have to understand the game of basketball, try and get better each and every day. Just do what your team needs you to do to win.”
After three preseason games, Diallo has logged more minutes than any Thunder newcomer not named Dennis Schröder. Donovan and the Thunder staff have trusted their young prospect by giving him extended minutes with George, Schröder and Steven Adams.
Against the Atlanta Hawks in Tulsa, Diallo started the third quarter after Terrance Ferguson left with a concussion early in the game. He finished with 13 points and showcased his ability to jump for rebounds, extend plays and finish at the rim.
Just being able to do everything on the court, that’s how he felt I’m going to be successful. That is what every great player does. — Diallo
“He’s doing a good job in terms of scouting with some information that we’ve been able to provide him,” Donovan said after the Thunder’s preseason game against Atlanta. “He makes his mistakes here and there, but he recognizes them. He’s able to get them corrected.”
Diallo’s diverse impact on the floor will be the factor of him seeing meaningful minutes going forward.
During Diallo’s freshman season at Kentucky, Kenny Payne would remind him that performances of high-scoring and low rebounding/block outputs were not his game. His fingerprints need to be visible all over the box score.
“Hamidou Diallo is 16-17 points, 7-8-9 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 blocks, 2 steals, where he fills a stat sheet,” Payne said to The Franchise. “That’s his athleticism, that’s his defensive mindset, that’s who he is ultimately going to be.”
“Just being able to compete every play,” Diallo said. “That’s something that Kenny preached to me, to be a ‘stat sheet stuffer.’ Just being able to do everything on the court, that’s how he felt I’m going to be successful. That is what every great player does. Just gotta keep try learning from the guys that do that, we have plenty of them”
There is no certainty that Diallo will become a star for Oklahoma City. No telling if his ceiling is that of a solid role player or of an impact starter. What is important is has the foundation. He has the drive to improve.
Oklahoma City did their part in finding the talent. Now, it’s Diallo’s turn to make it happen. Given his drive, it’s not hard to believe he might just be the next big thing.