Cheick Diallo’s most unique test this offseason will come off of the court.
The 20-year-old native of Mali, who was drafted by the Pelicans last June in the second round, speaks four languages and excels in two sports, but still has yet to earn his driver’s license. A year of bouncing between the NBA Development League and the Pelicans prompted Diallo to delay taking the wheel, choosing to rely on his Uber account as a primary means of transit.
It’s an unorthodox, albeit temporary, issue for the Pelicans’ rookie.
“I’ll learn to drive and take that test,” Diallo said of his summer plans. “I just need to do it. Uber is working for now, though. It’s just easy.”
Even Diallo’s daily form of transit provides a glimpse into how far he’s come, and just how much room there is left for him to him to grow, as both as a person and a player. It’s why the 6-foot-10 forward, who averaged just 7.0 minutes per game in a single college season at Kansas, was given the 2016-17 season to take root, waiting for the eventual blossom.
Seven different trips to the D-League, to three different teams, helped add necessary experience onto Diallo’s basketball odometer, and he’s hopeful to contribute as the Pelicans’ campaign closes, embarking on a season-ending four-game road trip, starting Friday night in Denver with the playoffs officially out of reach.
“I want to see him against some NBA competition to see if he’s grasped what we’re trying to do philosophically from an offensive standpoint and our defensive concepts,” Pelicans’ coach Alvin Gentry said. “We want to try to take a look at him, to see exactly where he is.”
In Diallo’s mind, he’s transformed from the player who spent training camp with the Pelicans, noted for his leaping ability, rebounding instincts and wingspan but inability to fully capture them together. Diallo’s potential is well known in basketball circles, thanks to earning MVP honors in both the McDonald’s High School All-American Game and Jordan Brand Classic in 2015.
But, it was the mostly empty arenas of the D-League where Diallo built his game for the professional level. Stints with the Austin Spurs, Long Island Nets and Greensboro Swarm were dotted by occasional trips with the Pelicans, where he practiced, but rarely played at the NBA level.
“It’s very important that he bought in and he understood the process,” Pelicans’ general manager Dell Demps said. “Some guys want to skip steps, and he doesn’t. He wants to play. There were times when we wanted him around the team for practice purposes and he would bring an energy we really liked.
“It was a combination of him getting minutes and practicing with our team so he could learn the system and gain familiarity with our team.”
Playing for basically four teams added up to a lot of flights. A lot of airports. A lot of Uber rides. A lot of introductions.
And no complaints.
“I just want to play, you know?” Diallo said. “I go to any place and I don’t even know the coaches or the players on some of these D-League teams. Then I play a few games and then I’m back with our team and practicing with (Anthony Davis) and coach (Kevin) Hanson. Sometimes I didn’t even know where I was, whether in North Carolina or Texas or wherever.
“I just know the D-Leagues helped me a lot and it would help anyone a lot. I needed to play games. And some of it was better than other teams, but it was good for me. And everyone here tells me I’m too young to say I’m tired. So I’m not tired.”
In 26 total D-League appearances (21 starts), Diallo averaged 15.0 points thanks to shooting 50.2 percent from the floor, while tallying 3.1 blocks and 8.5 rebounds per game.
Those numbers improved in his final 15-game stretch with the Greensboro Swarm, where Diallo said he felt the most comfortable, posting 17.1 points and 10.5 rebounds under the guidance of Gentry’s former assistant, Swarm coach Noel Gillespie.
“I think (Diallo’s) overall basketball IQ and for him to see the floor is improving,” Gillespie said. “The unique thing for us, is we got to see him play with Austin and Long Island and when he was playing with those two D-League teams, he came off the bench and it seemed like he was just looking to score and shoot jumpers.
“I think with us, through film studies and walk-throughs, you could see him figure stuff out and see how teams were defending him and how he should roll to the basket or where to find open shots from. I think he’s able to see the game better and see spacing, angles and chemistry which is huge in his development.”
More importantly to Gillespie, Diallo displayed a determination to win rarely seen by NBA players sent down to the D-League. The games, after all, are of little consequence to players who won’t be around for the D-League postseason and are locked into lucrative NBA contracts.
It was especially impressive to Gillespie since his Swarm are operated by the Charlotte Hornets, and have no direct affiliation with the Pelicans, an increasing rarity in today’s system which could’ve allowed Diallo to deflect some accountability.
“It’s a testament to him and his personality and his work ethic that he bought in and was coachable,” Gillespie said. “He wanted to do the right thing. His attitude was never about getting it over with. I worked for the Phoenix Suns and when we went sent players to the D-League they looked at it as punishment. I don’t think Cheick ever looked at it as punishment, he always looked at it as an opportunity to get better.
“The biggest thing for me as a coach was the losses hurt him. He was really affected by a loss. Even though we aren’t affiliated with the Pelicans, and he could have just come here, got his numbers and left. He didn’t do that. When we lost tight games, he would text me and talk to me and his teammates. Losing hurt him.”
Now, Diallo said he’s ready to see exactly where his development paid off. The Pelicans’ next four games will provide a small-sample litmus test and another stint in the Summer League will gauge him against the league’s best incoming rookies.
And he’s eyeing the upcoming training camp as the chance to spin his wheels in the NBA, hopefully with a driver’s license secured.
“His attitude and progress have exceeded expectations,” Demps said. “We set some goals for him this year and he surpassed those goals. We look forward to continuing the process with him this summer and obviously, next year, he’s going to be looking for an opportunity to compete for minutes.”