Hami on the Rise
It was the first real, regular-season game for the Thunder in four-and-a-half months. In this situation, there’s a mountain of uncertainty facing the group. How would the players come out? Would they be ready? Would they be over-hyped? Even the man who has perhaps the best pulse on the whole group, Chris Paul, didn’t know.
Across the court was a Utah Jazz team that had already got its legs underneath them with a two-point win on Thursday’s opening night of seeding games.
In Utah’s first matchup, their reserve sparkplug off the bench, Jordan Clarkson, lit up the New Orleans Pelicans. He rattled off 23 points on 8-of-17 shooting and a season-high 6 made free throws. As a result, there was significant focus from the Thunder coaching staff about defending Clarkson in Saturday afternoon’s re-match of the game that nearly tipped off on March 11.
As the Thunder and Jazz’s second units entered the game, it was second-year guard and former second round pick Hamidou Diallo who checked into the game at the 3:45 mark of the first quarter. Trading places with rookie defensive ace Lu Dort, it was Diallo’s task to track Clarkson. No one knew how he would respond with four months away from the court and a rapid three-week training camp in the bubble.
While no defensive effort will ever be perfect against the world’s best players who make a living on finding crafty ways to get a bucket, Diallo made a nice statement on the defensive side of the ball in his 20 minutes of action. He helped hold Clarkson to just 11 points on some abysmal 4-of-17 shooting, including just 2 attempts at the free throw line.
“Most of his time was spent on Clarkson,” Thunder Head Coach Billy Donovan said. “Clarkson got away from him a couple times in that first half, but I thought Hami worked really hard defensively and did some really, really good things.”
“Just keep being disruptive, keep being the player that I am on the defensive side and bringing that energy to the second unit that we need,” said Diallo of his job.
WATCH: Thunder Talk – Developing Diallo
While matchups and performance will dictate Diallo’s role in the remainder of the seeding games and the playoffs, it was an encouraging sign to see him so solidly in the rotation in the first game back after a four-month hiatus. The 21-year-old’s NBA path thus far has been anything but a straight-line, so if he does stick in the Thunder’s rotation as a key piece, it seems relatively fitting that it’s coming after a global pandemic and the resumption of a broken season inside of a bubble.
Diallo, the son of Guinean immigrants, lived in the LeFrak City neighborhood of Queens, NY, which is effectively just one apartment complex of twenty 17-story buildings, housing 14,000 people inside 40 acres of land. He was undersized as a youth, but when he had a spurt and averaged 17.1 points and 6.6 rebounds per game for John Bowne High School in Flushing, NY, high-level college scouts started to notice him.
A late commit to Kentucky, Diallo practiced with the Wildcats in the spring of 2017, but ended up playing just one season, 2017-18, alongside current teammate Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. He averaged 10.0 points and 3.6 rebounds per game, coming out of the lottery pick factory that is the University of Kentucky, Diallo slipped to the second round, where the Thunder seized on the opportunity to snap him up from Charlotte in a draft-night trade.
On draft night, his reputation was a long, electric athlete with all the tools required to be a ferocious defender at 6-foot-5 but with a 6-foot-11 wingspan. Once he got into the Thunder’s system, he learned the ropes of defensive schemes and after some crucial sit downs with Donovan and a lot of film with Thunder assistant coach and fellow New Yorker David Akinyooye, Diallo recognized the crucial nature of being in position early and how technique plays a huge role in getting stops. Now, it’s not just his quickness and athleticism, it’s his mind that helps Diallo get the job done.
“Hami’s always been tremendous defensively,” said Thunder rookie forward Darius Bazley. “He kind of was the one helping me out defensively and still is sometimes even in the course of the game.”
“I love playing with him just because we're going to get out and we're going to run and we’re going to get stops,” Bazley added.
It’s been uphill sledding for Diallo to actually get on the court to deliver that tenacious defense and exude his energy. In November of his rookie year, Diallo had a scary spill in Golden State that miraculously resulted in just an ankle sprain, but he was sidelined for three games, then saw less than 10 minutes in 6 of the ensuing 7 games after that as he tried to get his feet back under him. Towards the end of his rookie year, Diallo was out of the rotation and dealt with a nagging elbow injury that required surgery.
This season, Diallo burst onto the scene. He was a defensive revelation. It seemed every time he stepped on the court the Thunder’s intensity elevated. Over the first 11 games of the year, he registered 16 steals, including at least one in 10 of those contests. He was averaging 22 minutes per game.
On November 22, 366 days after his freaky fall against the Warriors, Diallo was in the midst of a home performance where he was harassing Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James. The 16-time All-Star came barreling into the lane and pushed off on the much smaller Diallo’s chest. James’ elbow sent the young Thunder guard scrambling backwards. Diallo’s right arm flew back behind him and whipped into teammate Mike Muscala’s hip. It was the same arm that was operated on just seven months prior, and the hyperextension kept Diallo out for 17 games.
“The unfortunate part for Hami the last couple of years has been some injuries. That's kept him out of playing for pretty extended periods of time,” Donovan said. “It's hard to kind of get back in when you've been gone that long and then his games coming right away and you're trying to find your rhythm.”
Between the injury and the shortened season, Diallo had only played 38 of the Thunder’s 64 games prior to the hiatus, 13 fewer than the 51 he played during his rookie season. Yet after all of those ups and downs, there was Diallo against Utah in Saturday’s seeding opener for the Thunder.
The former NBA All-Star Slam Dunk champion made a steal nearly as soon as he checked in and forced Clarkson into an awkward miss on a drive, but then something happened that’s been a rarity in Diallo’s career.
Paul drove the lane, the defense shifted across and Diallo remained in the left corner, keeping up the great spacing that has defined the Thunder’s offense this year. The ball zipped in Diallo’s direction and with no hesitation, no extra glance to see if there was an open lane, Diallo rose up with a tighter, more assured shooting form and buried a three-pointer.
In the second half, during another stint of extended minutes, nearly the exact same situation arose, with Paul hitting Diallo in that same left corner. The result was identical. It was only one game and just two shots, but for young players like Diallo a four-month hiatus can be just like an offseason. In the first three years of a player’s career, those down times between seasons are where the most growth occurs.
“I've always felt like Hami’s a great team guy and he's got really, really good upside,” Donovan said. “He was able to have the game slowed down a lot for himself and figure out a way to be effective.”
Prior to the hiatus, Diallo was a 21.3 percent three-point shooter. He may never become a knockdown specialist but with all his other gifts, putting in the work to become a threat to respect from behind the arc was vital to his chances of sticking in the NBA. That’s exactly what Diallo focused on during the break.
“Just working on my confidence from outside,” Diallo explained. “That was the biggest thing because I feel like that's a big part of shooting. It’s all confidence and it’s all mental.”
“He took advantage of the quarantine that we've had,” Bazley said. “His shot has gotten a lot better. That's probably the biggest change that I've seen.”
Don’t expect Diallo to take a ton of three-pointers moving forward, even if he has upped his skill in that department. He took less than two per-36 minutes during the regular season, and that’s by design. Instead, Donovan likes to utilize Diallo as a cutter, offensive rebounder and even screener on the offensive end. With his quick feet, Diallo can slip out of a screening action and roll to the rim, like Steven Adams might do from time to time.
“I'm just slipping and seeing if there's a switch,” Diallo said. “They’ve got to contain the guard and they got to contain me on a roll.”
“He's developing as a shooter,” said Donovan. “But certainly with his energy his athleticism his speed his quickness he has a lot of ways to impact the game.”
Once he catches the ball at the elbow area or near the baseline, he can rise up for a dunk or layup (he shot 66.1 percent at the rim this season) or make the next pass to the wing or the corner, depending on where the help defense comes from.
“When the ball is in his hands, because he is so explosive, he needs to be thinking about being an attacking player,” Donovan continued. “And if he doesn't have it, then he can be a ball mover.”
Donovan has experience using a guard in those situations. In fact, the player who is best at it on the roster just returned to action – Andre Roberson. Over the past two years, even with Roberson out with his patellar tendon injury, Diallo has taken plenty of his vet’s lessons to heart and is applying them on the floor.
“(Diallo) is finding creases and he's finding angles a little bit better, getting to the rim and finishing,” Donovan said. “With young players when you have a period of time that these guys play a lot of games and there is a long layoff, they have a lot of information that they're going through for the first time that they can process and get better. Hami’s no different. He's just gotten better.”
With a bunch of wings on the roster vying for playing time, from Diallo to Dort to Terrance Ferguson and Abdel Nader, the Thunder will have plenty of options moving forward at the wing spot. Coming into the bubble, Diallo has shown marked improvement on the floor, but also expressed an immense level of gratitude for the work that has gone into creating the bubble and for his teammates who have spouses or children whom they are leaving for months on end.
That’s why no matter how much time Diallo gets on the floor and in the rotation, he’s going to be approaching it with clear eyes in terms of his responsibility and a full heart for his teammates.
“It’s just about going out there and doing your job,” Diallo said. “We're all competitors. We all want to be on a floor. We're just happy to be playing a game that we love.”