Cheick Diallo grabs a rebound at Indiana

Cheick Diallo firing up Pelicans with energetic, effective play at both ends of court

by Jim Eichenhofer

Whether he’s running past everyone for two easy points; rejecting an ambitious opponent at the rim on a dunk attempt, blocking the shot, then wagging his finger, a la his hero Dikembe Mutombo; or waving his arms and celebrating, in order to ignite the Smoothie King Center crowd; New Orleans third-year player Cheick Diallo has an expression to describe the hyperactive energy he carries onto the hardwood. Diallo calls it “bringing the smoke.”

Over the past three Pelicans games, the 22-year-old has brought enough “smoke” to cause concern for local fire authorities, averaging 14.0 points, 11.0 rebounds and 1.3 blocks, while logging only about 21 minutes a night. It’s been the most impressive stretch of his NBA career – as well as a jolt of energy for a New Orleans team trying to remain focused on team and individual improvement, amid daily distractions.

“It’s opportunity I need to take advantage of, because (Anthony Davis is) not playing and his minutes are kind of decreased now,” Diallo said after an 18-point, 10-rebound outing vs. the Lakers on Saturday. If I get a chance, I need to show everybody what I can do.”

Anyone who’s watched the native of Mali during his 113 career games knows that Diallo is a bundle of energy any time he steps on the court, but if you pay even closer attention, you’ll notice that also applies even when he’s on the bench. During many of his DNPs over the past three seasons, he’s been one of the team’s most fervent cheerleaders, celebrating teammate’s baskets and trying to fire up spectators.

“That’s him,” Jrue Holiday said, smiling. “The intangibles he does don’t show up on the stat sheet. He’s a really good rebounder and rim-runner, but the energy he brings – even when he’s on the bench, but also on the court – is unmatched.”

“I like it, making fans go crazy if I do something special,” Diallo said of enjoying interacting with the crowd, after Saturday’s win over the Lakers. “Today I did the Wakanda (Forever gesture). That brings more energy from everybody. We played (the previous night at Indiana), so we felt like we needed energy from the fans too.”

During the NBA’s lengthy 82-game season, which has probably felt even longer than that in recent weeks for many Pelicans, Diallo’s all-out approach and positivity are greatly appreciated by teammates and fans. It also helps that the one-year Kansas product has been so effective in games, including going a perfect 12/12 from the field vs. the Lakers and 76ers. Dating back to Friday’s game at Indiana, the 6-foot-9, 220-pounder has made 16 of his last 17 shots.

“He has really good touch around the rim and is a presence down there,” said new teammate and Pelicans forward Stanley Johnson, who was already familiar with Diallo from the AAU circuit. “He’s going to get a chance to play here. I grew up playing with Cheick. I know what he’s capable of.”

"He’s finding open spots, setting good screens, finding his pockets in the defense,” guard Elfrid Payton said of Diallo’s sky-high efficiency. “He puts in a lot of work. He’s playing with very high confidence, but Cheick’s always had confidence in his game. Shots are falling. Hard work is always going to pay off. I’m not surprised – I know you all might be – but I’m not surprised he’s making these shots.”

Asked what’s been most impressive about Diallo over the past three games, wing E’Twaun Moore perhaps not surprisingly responded, “His energy. Offensively, he’s setting screens and rolling. Defensively, blocking shots, rebounding. Him just being energetic and giving us a lift.”

While playing behind a very talented New Orleans frontcourt early in his career, Diallo hasn’t always gotten opportunities to play, but he was on the court more late in 2017-18, partly due to DeMarcus Cousins’ season-ending injury. With the Pelicans focusing on developing younger players during the stretch run of ’18-19, Diallo may continue to get to bring his unique style of play and enthusiasm to the floor.

“You put in work just as much as everybody else, waiting on that opportunity,” Payton said of Diallo being required to stay patient. “When you get a chance, you try to take advantage of it. Cheick has been doing a great job with that.”

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