LAS VEGAS — Make no mistake, this is a different version of Cheick Diallo.
A year ago, the New Orleans Pelicans forward was a raw, talented but largely unknown second-round project who was just coming off a lone season at Kansas, where he played just 7 minutes per game despite his lofty five-star rating out of high school.
His first extended minutes came at this same venue, in this same setting, receiving extended playing time at Las Vegas summer league. He showed flashes of brilliance and was complimented often for his energy, but was mostly uncertain how to play.
There was no tentativeness this time around.
In Friday’s summer league-opening 96-93 loss to the Toronto Raptors, Diallo showed this year’s summer Pelicans are going through him. And he’ll have an opportunity to catch even more attention when New Orleans returns to action at 3 p.m. Sunday against the Atlanta Hawks in the Cox Pavillion.
“Last year was so different, man,” Diallo said after the team’s practice Saturday. “This year, I have to be the leader on the team. I have to talk to everybody and I have to tell everybody what to do. I don’t try to demand of you, but basketball-wise, I was there last year and I know I have to talk to people and help them.”
Even without the gaudy, game-leading 27-point, 10-rebound stat line, Diallo’s tenacity and assertiveness alone were enough to prove he’s evolved. The second-year forward was routinely the Pelicans’ No. 1 option offensively and he embraced the challenge.
It wasn’t just the fact Diallo connected on 11-of-18 shot attempts, it was the creativity he showed in doing it. Diallo displayed a sweeping hook across the lane, a leaning layup just past the free throw line, a jumper from the midrange baseline and a powerful drive to the basket.
Yes, it’s still summer league and the Pelicans’ coaching staff isn’t yet ready to declare the 20-year-old ready for primetime, but he’s progressing on the path coach Alvin Gentry and general manager Dell Demps set out for him last summer.
After a season of bouncing around to four different D-League teams, in between seven different assignments back-and-forth from the Pelicans, the progress he’s made is obvious.
“It’s unbelievable,” Pelicans’ summer league coach Jamelle McMillan said. “He’s learning his role and knows what we expect him to do. He’s finding ways for him to be valuable and be effective within the framework of what we do. And his voice is great, because he’s getting his talk up.”
While the year-over-year growth is obvious, his performance in game one was admittedly far from perfect.
Too often, the Raptors’ frontcourt, led by NBA center Jakob Poeltl, was able to find space inside the paint for easy buckets. Toronto also dominated the glass, outrebounding New Orleans 43-32, including 16 offensive rebounds.
One possession featured four offensive rebounds alone.
“That rebounding was not my best,” Diallo said. “They had a lot of bigs and they were bigger than us, but it shouldn’t have been that big of a problem and we should have gotten a lot more rebounds. I should have had 15 or 16 rebounds.”
It’s something Diallo takes personally, especially after Demps and Gentry both told him his No. 1 path to playing time this season was by crashing the glass at both ends and running the floor.
On a roster with Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins, Diallo knows he isn’t going to be relied-upon much for scoring in the post. So, while his 27-point outburst was a signal Pelicans’ fans were looking for, and his 10 rebounds looked good in a box score, there’s still plenty of room to grow and show his transformation can translate from Last Vegas to New Orleans.
“For him, it’s about rebounding and being able to guard the ball,” McMillan said. “He can run the floor with the best of them and if we’re able to get him active on both ends of the floor in the paint, as well as understanding his coverages, then he will have done his job.”