Through the first few practice sessions at the USA Basketball U19 training camp this week, few players seem to be having as much fun as Hamidou Diallo.
During Sunday’s evening session, Diallo — paired with new UK teammates Kevin Knox and PJ Washington — started playfully rubbing Washington’s head, a mischievous grin on his face, when the trio returned to their bench area after a scrimmage.
After that session, Diallo sneaked up on John Calipari as he was speaking to reporters and made goofy faces behind his coach’s back, laughing as he walked away.
Calipari turned around to look, and he smiled, too.
Diallo deserves to have a little fun.
His story these past months has been well chronicled. Diallo enrolled at UK out of prep school in January, practiced with the Wildcats during the spring semester, and then announced he was entering his name in the NBA Draft on the very last day that underclassmen could do so.
Diallo went through that draft process, worked out with NBA teams, had conversations with Calipari and his own family, and ultimately decided to return to UK for his redshirt freshman season just minutes before the withdrawal deadline.
“It came all the way down to the wire, for real,” Diallo said.
Recapping that “crazy day” last month, Diallo said he and Calipari had a lengthy phone conversation at about 10 p.m. — two hours before the deadline to withdraw from the draft — and Diallo called the coach back around 11:45 and said he was returning to UK.
The official announcement went out to UK fans — many of them had been waiting to hear Diallo’s decision all day — around midnight.
“People thought I was just dragging out the process, but it really came down to the wire,” Diallo said. “Hearing from different teams, hearing different things, it really came down to the wire. I’m just happy I made the right decision.
“It was a great process. I’m happy I went through it. And if I did it again, I wouldn’t change anything that I did.”
Now that his immediate future is clear, Diallo wants to make the most of it.
The 6-foot-5 guard, here in Colorado this week to try out for Calipari’s U19 team, said he feels like he has the hang of college life after a semester on UK’s campus. He’s gotten to know Calipari better, and he’s already acting as a sounding board for the Cats’ incoming freshmen.
“I feel like I’m definitely the leader for this team,” Diallo said. “When you first hit college, it’s a lot to take in. So just trying to keep these guys level-headed, and let them know that once they get used to things, everything is going to come easy. When I first came in … I was having stressful day after stressful day.”
Diallo stuck with it, and his game started to improve.
“I think my game is way different, just from understanding the game,” he said. “My mind just thinks differently now than when I was in high school. … On the court, I’m just getting better in every aspect of the game.”
Diallo has put that new game on display so far this week. He’s shown off a better outside shot, better passing skills and a willingness to attack the basket. His unmatched athleticism has also been there — skying for dunks, rebounds and loose balls.
Calipari mentioned how far Diallo had come over the past few months, but he also smiled and said when his players aren’t playing, they get a lot more encouragement in practice — “You’re the best,” they hear from the UK coach — and now that Diallo will be one of the go-to guys on the team, he might hear different.
“Now I gotta coach him,” Calipari said with a grin.