There was a moment of confusion among Pelicans fans less than 10 minutes into the second round of Thursday’s NBA draft.
Did Pelicans general manager Dell Demps really use two picks on one player — a player who averaged 7.5 minutes per game in college?
Yes, he did. But Demps urged everyone to look past the numbers and see second-round pick Cheick Diallo for everything he brings, rather than the stats he produced in his lone season at Kansas.
New Orleans traded its selections at No. 39 and No. 40 to move up to No. 33, nabbing the 6-foot-9 forward before another team could snatch him up.
Despite a five-star rating in high school and winning coveted MVP honors in the prestigious 2015 McDonald’s All-American Game and Jordan Brand Classic, Diallo is a mystery to most, thanks to a stat line at Kansas that displays pedestrian averages of 3.0 points, 2.5 rebounds and 0.8 blocks per game.
“I just have to keep fighting, and a lot of people doubt me and think I can’t play because of Kansas,” Diallo said. “So I just have to keep moving forward and working hard to prove I belong.”
But as Pelicans fans scratched their heads and stared down statistics, the team’s front office erupted in jubilation.
“We really targeted this guy, and we were surprised he was there (at pick No. 33),” Demps said. “We talked to him on the phone, and he was so fired up and we were so fired up. We were sitting there screaming and yelling on the phone.”
The Pelicans operations department scouted Diallo well before he got to Kansas, watching the No. 7 high school prospect in the nation (according to ESPN), not knowing what path could lead him to New Orleans. At the time, no one expected it to be in the second round.
An NCAA compliance issue sidelined Diallo for the opening month of the season, and he never caught up. As the veteran-laden Jayhawks battled for a Big 12 championship, Diallo was mostly reduced to a bystander.
He even saw current Pelicans teammate Buddy Hield score 46 points in a triple-overtime thriller without getting the opportunity to slow him down.
“I was on the bench,” Diallo said. “But I was saying, wow, that No. 24 is good!”
Although he provided levity with his reaction, it was part of a frustrating season for Diallo. The 19-year-old hit his first bit of on-court adversity since he began playing basketball in his native nation of Mali in 2010.
“I have to prove people wrong, but that’s not enough,” Diallo said. “When the season starts, I have to show those who thought I couldn’t play at Kansas because I wasn’t good enough. I have to prove them wrong, because people don’t know who I am.”
His “relentless energy” is what stands out most to Demps. Diallo’s court presence is leveraged by his 9-foot-1 standing reach and 7-foot-4 wingspan that complement exemplary leaping ability and rebounding instincts.
Gentry said he could play as a combination forward, and coach Alvin Gentry even said he could develop into a reliable center in small-ball situations, capable of defending athletic forwards while still protecting the goal and securing rebounds.
“He was more of a victim of circumstance, because by the time he was eligible to play, Kansas was No. 1 in the polls, so it was hard to suddenly incorporate someone else into the rotation and lineups when you’re No. 1,” Gentry said. “All of those things were expressed to me by Bill Self, his coach, and he had a lot of confidence in him and had nothing but good things to say about him.
“He’s an energy guy that plays extremely, extremely hard. I think he will be a fan favorite. He will do it in practice and do it in the games.”
And now the Pelicans find themselves tied at the hip with Diallo. While second-round picks are typically granted a more patience and leeway than even late first-rounders, New Orleans spent a pair of them on Diallo, displaying the high-level target he was on the Pelicans’ draft board.
“You talk to people and say, ‘Is he a good kid?,” Demps said. “And they say, ‘No. No. He’s a great kid. He’s a phenomenal kid.’ In our interview process with him, when he walked out of the room, everybody just thought, wow. We all said, ‘Did you hear that? Did you listen to this guy?’ You want to root for him.”