Keita Bates-Diop Is Impossible To Ignore
Four years ago, Keita Bates-Diop was sitting on the bench at Ohio State waiting for his chance to show what he could do. Earlier this year he found himself in a similar position. Bates-Diop’s NBA career was never a sure thing, but watch the Wolves play or take a glance at the box scores of their last few games and Bates-Diop’s impact is impossible to miss. He’s here now, and he’s not going anywhere.
When thinking about Bates-Diop’s NBA journey, one thing sticks out—he has never stopped working. He worked himself into a leading role at Ohio State, eventually winning Big Ten Player of the Year, and now he’s in the process of working himself from a second-round pick sitting at the end of the Wolves’ bench into a key contributor for Minnesota.
Bates-Diop is in the midst of the best stretch of his career. He has started the last three games for the Wolves, led the team in total minutes over that span, scored in double-digits twice, rebounded the ball well, shown off great passing ability and demonstrated his ability to be an extremely opportunistic and effective scorer. While it may seem like Bates-Diop came out of nowhere after barely playing at all until mid-February, in actuality nothing could be farther from the truth. Bates-Diop’s success is of his own making—a product of an approach towards the game that has quickly endeared him to everyone he works with.
It was at Ohio State that Bates-Diop started thinking about the NBA as a real possibility. He was told towards the beginning of his college career that he had NBA potential due to his length and size. However, he said it wasn’t until he heard his name called in the draft that it hit him that his hard work was paying off. The NBA dream had become real.
Bates-Diop ended up being selected with the No. 48 overall pick, a far cry from some projections that had him going late in the first round. The Wolves, however, were obviously thrilled to get him. Bates-Diop maintains that his slide did not come as a shock because of the volatile nature of the draft. Also, as he’s said from day one, draft position stops mattering as soon as you join a team.
“You really don’t know just because… anything could happen on draft night. People slide up, slide down, just based on what other people say, but it doesn’t really matter after that,” he said. “At this point, we’ve got guys playing really really well that weren’t drafted, guys in the late second round playing really really well, so it doesn’t really matter after draft night. That’s how I thought of it after that night.”
The NBA is a big adjustment for rookies. The intensity of the schedule, the travel, the level of play, it’s all new. Bates-Diop was candid about the fact that the NBA took some getting used to. He went from being the best player on a very good college team to an unproven rookie on a team with several veterans at his position.
“People always tell you what to expect but you can’t really feel that until you get there. It’s a lot of different things, the biggest thing is the number of games, traveling, every night it’s difficult. In college people might say ‘Oh, we can usually handle them,’ but here you have to really come every single night,” he said. “It doesn’t matter the team’s record, your record, it doesn’t really matter. Obviously traveling, I’ve flown on more planes this first 60 whatever games than in my entire life—and it doesn’t stop, I don’t unpack really.”
The travel is difficult, as is the adjustment to the rigors of the NBA lifestyle, but it was the lack of playing time that Bates-Diop struggled with the most. However, his fight to get on the court made him a better player and altered how he thought about the game.
“It was hard not playing,” Bates-Diop said. “It wasn’t easy, because I’m used to playing at least a little bit. But that kind of comes with it. It kind of changed my mentality and just you know, staying ready, working on my conditioning, lifting, skill work before and after, whatever it took to stay ready for the time I get.”
Luckily, Bates-Diop didn’t have to go through any of this alone. He quickly developed a close relationship with Josh Okogie, and another player closer to his age, Tyus Jones. Bates-Diop said that getting to know and learn from his teammates and getting to play with Okogie has been the highlight of his year. Additionally, Bates-Diop has grown close with veteran Luol Deng and it was Deng’s approach to his own lack of playing time that helped shaped Bates-Diop’s mature response to the necessity of being patient early in an NBA career.
“I never pouted or anything, I thought I had a good attitude going into it and always stayed ready,” said Bates-Diop. “I talked to guys that didn’t play earlier in their careers about what they did. I remember Luol wasn’t playing a lot early either so I kind of looked at what he was doing before games, after games, before practice, after practice, saw him just staying ready, just keeping his body right, cause if he can do that in year 15 or whatever it is for him, I should probably take some of that.”
Deng noticed Bates-Diop paying attention—Bates-Diop’s attentiveness quickly made him a lot of friends in the locker room. Bates-Diop said his goal for himself this season was simply to learn as much as possible and he feels like he’s made great progress. You won’t find anyone around the organization who thinks differently.
“I am a big believer in Keita. I think it’s been difficult for him coming in, obviously Josh getting playing time and Josh getting a start, he might not say it but as a rookie he’s been working very hard and he wants to show the city what he can do. I think as long as he stays ready, I’m always talking to him, his opportunity will come,” said Deng. “I really think he’s very talented. He listens, he works hard, I’m just a big fan of his. I know the way this league is going he has all the skillsets to be a great player in this league.”
Bates-Diop’s approach off the court is reflected in his play. Not only in an abstract way, as in, he puts in the work and succeeds, but down to the specifics. He thinks about where he needs to be, he analyzes what spots on the floor defenses are ignoring. Almost every time Interim Head Coach Ryan Saunders talks about Bates-Diop, he calls him “cerebral.” Bates-Diop is a thinker, and as he learns to act on his analysis of the game in real time at the pace of the NBA game it’s becoming clear just how intelligent of a player he is.
“A lot of times when you talk about being cerebral, they can find ways to impact the game without scoring, they can find ways to score without having the ball in a lot of situations,” said Saunders. “You see that with Keita—he’s good at reading defenders and knowing when to cut and then defensively he’s been better than a lot of people expected, just being able to guard multiple positions.”
Earlier in this month, Bates-Diop spoke about how he watches Dario Saric and Deng when he’s sitting on the bench in order to pick up the tendencies of their defenders. If a defender is sagging off one of those two or ignoring them on certain plays, that will probably still be the case when Bates-Diop comes in. He uses that information to figure out where and when to cut and how to pick his spots. It’s that connection between intellectual understanding and in-game performance that has helped Bates-Diop thrive lately, and it’s something that will continue to serve him well.
Going forward, Bates-Diop knows he can’t slow down. Similar to the philosophy of his coach, Saunders, the young forward is a big believer in taking things one step at a time. He said he doesn’t set huge goals for himself and his career, instead he approaches every day as its own challenge. In the whirlwind of his first NBA season, that challenge is more than enough to focus on. Importantly, Bates-Diop hopes he never forgets how special of an experience it is to play basketball at the highest level.
“I try not to look towards the future more than a few days or even a few games because you can lose sight of the moment,” he said. “Honestly this year has gone by really fast already, so I try to live in the moment. Vets say it goes by really fast, vets say ‘When I was a rookie feels like it was yesterday,’ so try to take each day, each moment and not take it for granted.”
Bates-Diop’s career may have gotten off to a slow start on the court, but if there’s one thing that’s certain it’s that he’s found a home in Minnesota and a group of people inside the Timberwolves organization who believe in him and want to help him become the best player he can be.
“I think I’m really lucky, I have it good, a lot of the people in this organization keep me level-headed,” he said. “Whether it’s the assistant coaches that I talk to or the vets that see the work that all the younger guys put in, they want to help us do well as their vets did them.”
It’s in the development of players like Bates-Diop that the culture the Wolves have built becomes obvious. The veteran players have fully embraced the rookies. They’re up cheering for them on the bench, quietly slipping them words of advice and celebrating the success of younger players as their own. For a player like Bates-Diop, who has a high ceiling and an incredible basketball I.Q. but just needed a little time to develop, that’s a recipe for success. How exactly Bates-Diop’s career will play out is up in the air—he recognizes he needs to spend some time in the offseason working on his body, his shooting, and honing his mental understanding of the game through watching film—but it’s hard to think he won’t find success. Bates-Diop is here to stay.