In the beginning it seemed effortless. Hamidou Diallo was intercepting passes on the wing, sneaking in for tip-ins and exhilarating the Chesapeake Energy Arena crowd with acrobatic dunks. Did the Thunder just smack a surprise home run out of the park with a second-round pick?
After playing in 30 games through the first three months of the season and even starting in two, Diallo was shooting an efficient 50 percent from the field, well above average for a guard. He was also helpful on the defensive end, using his athleticism and length to be disruptive.
Starting in January however, Diallo swooned as many rookies do. Teams got to see him on tape more frequently. They knew when he would drive to attack the rim and at what angles he would charge in for an offensive rebound. They knew to leave Diallo a step or two and dare him to shoot from the perimeter. They used his aggressiveness on defense against him. Some offensive woes bled into his defense, and Diallo struggled with defending with his hands instead of his feet.
“It stuck out like a sore thumb,” Diallo reflected. “It’s just something to keep getting better at, to keep grinding and keep putting the work in.”
“When something gets taken away and you have to figure something else out, that’s not going to happen immediately,” Head Coach Billy Donovan said.
Despite winning the 2019 All-Star Weekend’s Slam Dunk Contest, Diallo wasn’t thrilled with the back half of his first pro season and was determined to do something about it. He turned to defensive ace Andre Roberson, who despite still recovering from a ruptured patellar tendon, led film sessions for Diallo, Terrance Ferguson and other young wings and focused on technique like hand placement and footwork. An All-Defensive Team performer in 2017, Roberson went through the gauntlet of being refereed while defending All-Star scorers and handed off some knowledge to Diallo on how to deal with it all.
“He’s helped a lot and he’s still helping to this day,” Diallo said of Roberson.
While getting help with the physical side from Roberson, Donovan did work on Diallo’s mental approach. Focusing him squarely on the concept that he could be an elite defender in the league, Donovan encouraged Diallo to accept that type of nightly responsibility and all that it requires. That’s where commitment to the gameplan, tenacity, will-power and concentration all come into play.
“When guys start running around and they start to get movement and screening and different mis-directions and actions, it happens so fast that technique can go out the window,” Donovan noted.
“Coaches have a high expectation for me on that end of the court,” Diallo said. “There’s a level of trust between me and the coaching staff.”
Diallo was learning, but there was one hiccup before he could put any of it into practice – arthroscopic surgery on his right elbow in mid-April. Off-season work got delayed for about a month, but when he recovered he was ready to attack his summer with rigor. He spent most of the time in Oklahoma City with quick spurts back in his hometown of New York City. The Lefrak City, Queens native watched hours of film, studied his defensive tendencies and learned when not to swipe down at the ball and how to attack a sagging defense.
Then came Summer League in Las Vegas, where Diallo was ferocious as a defender but also shined offensively, flashing better handles and more poise with the ball. Last year he was a player whose athleticism only showed up with a free run to the rim in transition or on the offensive glass. In July though, those innate gifts were apparent in traffic, on drives and as a rebounder. He averaged 14.8 points, 4.3 rebounds, 1.5 steals and 1.3 assists in four games out in Las Vegas, getting his offseason on a positive track.
“He's so talented, he's going to show up in the game,” said Thunder assistant coach Dave Bliss, who oversaw Diallo’s Summer League performances. “There's not going to be a game where Hami is out there and you don't know he's out there.”
The energy around Diallo carried into Training Camp this October and the four preseason games the Thunder used as tune-ups before the start of the regular season on Wednesday against the Utah Jazz. Diallo was solid in all four showings, averaging 11.0 points on 43.2 percent shooting – including 37.5 percent from three and 81.8 percent from the free throw line – to go with 4.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.3 steals per game. He finished smoothly in transition, signaled for backdoor passes and corralled them easily and tried to only take shots within the flow of the offense.
Relentless. He’s not backing down from anybody.
What stood above the rest, however, was a showing against Dallas’ Luca Doncic in the Thunder’s loss to the Mavericks. While the reigning Rookie of the Year scored 19 points in the game, he shot just 4-for-10 from the field and committed six turnovers, clearly bothered by Diallo’s quick feet and ability to not fall for pump fakes while still defending with his hands straight up.
“I like his tenacity, his resiliency,” Roberson said. “Relentless. He’s not backing down from anybody.”
“Confidence. Aggressiveness,” said center Steven Adams. “I feel like the game’s slowing down a little bit more for him, which is expected, mate.”
Diallo was still whistled for a few more fouls than he would like against Doncic, but some of that can be chalked up to superstars getting superstar calls against a young, developing player. As Diallo continues to show referees that he’s going to be around for a while and he puts the lessons learned from Roberson and Donovan into practice, he’ll more frequently get the benefit of the doubt.
With eight new players on the roster, there are many in the Thunder locker room who are witnessing Diallo’s step forward with fresh eyes. Wowed by his leaping, strength and quickness, new teammates like Mike Muscala have taken notice of the 21-year-old and his ability to help the entire group and have raised an eyebrow.
“He’s a really impressive athlete. His aggressiveness and strength going to the basket have been really fun to watch so far in this preseason and training camp and practice,” Muscala reviewed. “I’m really happy for him. He’s put in some really good work this summer. You can tell. He’s looking great right now.”
While the former number 45 overall selection in the 2018 NBA Draft might have been unknown to most when he arrived in Oklahoma City, there’s one Thunder player who isn’t surprised at all by Diallo’s glow up. That’s former University of Kentucky teammate Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, also a fellow 2018 draftee. The same skills and athletic gifts that Diallo had in college are there, but they’ve been refined, curated into a professional two-way player.
“It’s still Hami. Still athletic, still 6-foot-6, but he’s just honed in on his focus and his discipline,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “Hami’s made tremendous strides on both ends of the floor.”
High Expectations for Hami
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