Pelicans summer league preview: Cheick Diallo has added 10-plus pounds since end of regular season

by Jim Eichenhofer

The mental aspect of his development is steadily evolving, making him feel increasingly comfortable on an NBA court. His physical progress is evident whenever he steps on a scale.

With one year of professional experience under his belt, the game is beginning to slow down for 20-year-old forward Cheick Diallo, while his strength and muscle are increasing. New Orleans’ second-round draft pick last summer weighed about 225 pounds as a rookie, but through a combination of dedicated lifting and eating habits, he’s now 237. By training camp in the fall, he hopes to get to 240 or 245.

“Everybody keeps saying if you want to play power forward, you have to gain some kind of weight,” said Diallo, who played one year in college at Kansas before being drafted No. 33 overall. “So I just made up my mind to get stronger.”

“I think Cheick is going to fill out naturally on his own as he gets older,” Pelicans summer head coach Jamelle McMillan said of Diallo’s physique. “But that’s an area he spends a lot of time on.”

When New Orleans opens NBA Summer League play July 7 vs. Toronto (5 p.m. Central, NBA TV), Diallo will try to build on what was an excellent individual close to the 2016-17 regular season. The native of the African nation of Mali averaged 11.0 points and 9.8 rebounds during a four-game Pelicans road trip, capped by a 12-point, 16-board night in Portland. He shot 18/31 from the field (58.1 percent), highlighted by a 9/10 game vs. the Lakers in Staples Center.

Diallo and McMillan both credit the Pelicans’ pair of All-Star bigs, Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins, for helping foster the inexperienced player’s improvement.

“There are some veteran guys who have really helped him along the way,” McMillan said. “AD really took to him. DeMarcus, from the first week he walked in, was messing around with Cheick on the bench. That has really bred the idea that Cheick belongs, and we understand and value what he brings to the table.

“(On the court), when he’s able to slow down and understand how to get from Point A to Point B effectively by letting the game happen, that’s been the biggest difference. Before, he tried to predetermine or rush a play – he had a move in his head, and he would just do it. Now it’s ‘OK, if my defender cuts me off, I spin,’ or ‘if the defender’s hands are down, I raise up.’ He’s not forcing things.”

Diallo: “If you have two of the best players in the league on your team, you have to listen to them. They’ll tell you exactly what you need to do to get better. I look up to AD a lot. I’m trying to (model) my game after him. So whatever he tells me, I try to listen. At the end of the season, I would guard Cousins (in practice) and he’d help me, saying things like, ‘OK, this is what you have to do when you’re guarding a guy who is bigger than you.’ ”

Diallo focused this spring on building a sturdier frame, which will help him better hold his ground in the low post – at both ends of the floor – or while pursuing rebounds. He’s done it with consistent weight training and eating heavier foods.

“I don’t eat fast food,” Diallo noted. “I’ve been eating steak, mashed potatoes, chicken and a lot of pasta.”

The key will be to maintain the same level of athleticism and quickness that’s made Diallo an above-average rebounder, shot-blocker and opportunistic scorer during his NBA cameos and D-League stints (he averaged 15.0 points, 8.5 boards and 2.4 blocks in the latter circuit). He believes he can increase his weight to 245 without any drop-off in mobility or leaping ability.

“We always talk about Cheick’s motor,” McMillan said. “He runs like a deer. He can really move up and down the floor, which puts a lot of pressure on defenses and helps the rhythm and pace of your team. He gets random tip-ins, because he has a knack for the ball. He’s a ballhawk. He loves blocking shots, especially from the weakside. He just gravitates to opportunities, which is really going to help him and us. When you have a guy like that who can get an extra possession just because he’s going to outwork somebody, that’s something he can control and understands that. Moving forward, that’s something that’s going to really benefit him in his career.”

“He put on some weight and has gotten a lot stronger,” said Pelicans point guard Quinn Cook, who is joining Diallo on the summer squad. “We are with each other every day in the weight room. I know he’s confident because he had some success at the end of the year as well. He works extremely hard. It’s all about translating it to the court. I know he’s going to do a phenomenal job.”

McMillan is looking forward to watching Diallo carry over his offseason regimen to the floor in Las Vegas. Dating back to last summer, when the then-teen first joined the Pelicans, he’s been praised by the coaching staff for his diligence in trying to learn and improve as a player.

“He’s put in an amazing amount of work,” McMillan said. “A big part of (summer league) is throwing him in different positions, to see how he responds. We want to be able to trust him in different situations. His second time around in summer league, we will see growth.”

“Next year might be a big year for me,” Diallo said. “So I need to do everything this summer to get better.”