Pelicans forward Cheick Diallo sets lofty goals for his third trip to summer league

by Jim Eichenhofer
@Jim_Eichenhofer

When Cheick Diallo prepared for his first NBA Summer League as a rookie two years ago, his coaches described it as a “whirlwind,” with the one-year college player just trying to keep up with all the adjustments he needed to make in pro basketball. With a total of 76 real NBA games now under his belt – including seven playoff appearances this spring – Diallo’s perspective on the summer circuit has changed significantly. So greatly that the 21-year-old is listing “league MVP” as one of his goals for the next week-plus of game competition.

“I’m trying to win every game,” Diallo said after New Orleans’ Tuesday practice. “I’m trying to go to the finals and win MVP.”

Diallo is the relatively rare NBA veteran with genuine playoff experience who’ll be suiting up July 6-17 in Las Vegas, but his overall background in basketball remains relatively brief. He only appeared in 27 games as a Kansas freshman, leaving him relatively unprepared for the next level. To his credit, he’s spent extensive time in past offseasons in the Ochsner Sports Performance Center, trying to improve at both ends of the floor.

“I love Cheick,” Pelicans summer head coach Kevin Hanson said, when told of the player’s MVP objective. “He sets goals for himself, and that’s what it’s all about. We’re here to improve. You can’t reach those goals unless you set them, right? The kid wants to be great and you have to appreciate that work ethic. He’s the hardest-working guy on our team. He’s going to get there.”

After appearing in 37 of the Pelicans’ final 42 games during the ’17-18 campaign, including the seven playoff contests, the 6-foot-9 forward immediately headed back into the gym to try to make more strides as a player. The 6-10 Hanson, a former pro overseas who works hands-on extensively with New Orleans frontcourt players and has helped guide the ascension of Anthony Davis, praises Diallo for his enthusiasm and work ethic.

“It’s great. His energy level is the unique thing about him,” Hanson said. “He’s just a high-motor guy. It’s never an issue of trying to get him to work harder.

“Some things don’t take. Some things I’ve worked on with AD he’s obviously not going to get for a while. But he is 21, so we’ve got to be patient with him. He’s fun. We’ve had him here the whole month of June and been working on a lot of different things. Hopefully it shows out in summer league. If not, it will show out in the regular season.”

Midway through last season, Diallo appeared headed for a second straight year of inactivity at the NBA level, playing just 23 games and 144 total minutes through the end of January. The Jan. 26 season-ending injury to DeMarcus Cousins dramatically changed Diallo’s role, with him going from eight consecutive DNPs due to coach’s decision to 10 straight game appearances Jan. 30 through Feb. 25. While spending much of the first half of the season watching, Diallo tried to remain positive and patient.

“It was kind of frustrating at the beginning,” he said of his lack of opportunities. “(But) I felt like I was taking my time, didn’t rush anything. It was tough. I kept working, even though I was not playing, and just kept my head up. It helped me a lot.”

Now Diallo will try to carry over some of what he showed over the final months of ’17-18, when he emerged as a Pelicans fan favorite, due to his energetic play and crowd-pleasing celebrations – not only of his own contributions, but also while cheering for teammates from the bench.

Hanson: “He plays with a lot of emotion. Obviously you saw it during the regular season, with his antics, his flexing, all that stuff. But you appreciate it. You want a guy who has emotion and cares about the game the way he does. That’s what you want, guys who are going to compete and challenge each other.”

Diallo averaged 4.9 points and 4.1 rebounds in his second NBA season, but his per-36 minute averages were 15.7 points and 13.1 rebounds, nearly a carbon copy from his rookie campaign. But the Pelicans are much more focused on how he improves at the other end of the floor, where he averaged 1.3 blocks per 36 minutes.

“One of the things that was holding him back from playing time was his defense,” Hanson said. “We spent a lot of time working with him at that end. It’s hard to do without playing minutes. Young players need to play through mistakes, and he didn’t have the luxury of doing that early in the season. We tried to put him through a lot of different situations, and that was the biggest thing he really grew in. And that will be big in summer league. We’re going to have him guard stretch fours. He’s got to keep his spacing, be disciplined and not allow these stretch fours to get open looks.”

Hanson also indicated that Diallo will be showing off improved range on his jumper, which the Pelicans predict Diallo will display during summer league. Don’t be surprised to see him launch a few corner three-pointers, despite never taking a shot beyond the arc yet in his 76 career NBA games.

“Obviously we’re going to throw him the ball in the post, and let him do his thing,” Hanson said. “We’re going to let him pop more than he’s been doing with our main team. We had him rolling (to the basket) exclusively, and that’s his best position, but we’ll allow him to pop some so he can shoot his jumpshot. We’ve been working on his corner three, so we’ll allow him to shoot that. Overall, we just want him to improve as a basketball player.”