Speaking about his newest teammate over the weekend, Derek Willis brought up the biggest knock on Hamidou Diallo’s game without being asked.
“The main concern with Hami coming in — when I started hearing people’s opinion on him — was his shooting ability,” the UK senior said. “And that’s taken off for sure. Him working with Kenny Payne and the rest of our coaching staff, they’ve helped him tremendously on that. He’s definitely shooting a lot better since he’s been here.”
Willis called Diallo “scary good” at basketball, and Diallo with an outside shot is a scary thought indeed for UK’s future opponents.
The 6-foot-5 shooting guard with a 6-11 wingspan and jump-out-of-the-gym athleticism was one of — maybe the — most exciting high school basketball player in the country when this season started. The only thing missing was a three-point shot. He was a 20 percent shooter from long range on the Nike circuit last summer. He wasn’t much better for his high school team.
Everyone who was asked about that subject in UK’s locker room at Bankers Life Fieldhouse over the weekend said that’s changed in his two months as a Wildcat.
“It’s just a learning process,” Diallo said. “I don’t really think back on (high school). I’m here now, with a much better jump shot. I’m a much better player. I don’t really think much on the past.”
Diallo also isn’t thinking much about the present, at least in terms of making an on-the-court impact for this UK team as it tries to keep moving forward in the NCAA Tournament.
The Queens, N.Y., native’s path has been well documented. He graduated from high school last spring, stuck around with his prep school team for one more season but grew bored with that level of competition and made the jump to college, enrolling in classes at UK in January with the intention of practicing with the Wildcats and making his UK debut next season.
In practice, I can’t slow the guys down, so I have to pick up on things very quickly. I gotta guard just like I’m playing. I gotta play just like I’m playing. I gotta prepare for a game just like I’m going to be playing.
Hamidou Diallo, UK freshman
Diallo acknowledged Saturday that there were times these past two months — especially when De’Aaron Fox wasn’t 100 percent healthy and the Cats were, by their standards, struggling — that he thought about going to John Calipari and asking to play.
He also acknowledged that it’s been difficult to sit on the bench.
“I feel like, for any competitor, it’s tough to sit and watch,” he said. “This is the first time I’ve really ever sat on the bench this much. So it’s definitely tough. It’s a part of the plan though. It’s set, and it’s been going great so far.”
Those who have watched him in pregame warm-ups over the past few weeks have noticed his shot getting better and better.
Those who have to practice against him every day say they’ve gotten better and better as a result.
“We’re glad we got him here, because he’s been helping us in practice,” said Malik Monk. “He’s going to be a great player. He’s going to be a competitor. That’s what he does. He plays physical with us. He’s not going to give us any breaks. He’s like 6-6. Great length. Great defender. We’re just happy to have him.”
As part of the “blue” team in UK’s practices, Diallo also defends the other backcourt starters, Fox and Isaiah Briscoe, on a regular basis. He said he feels like he’s made them better players. In turn, he’s getting an idea of what Calipari wants from his Cats.
“He’s treating me just like a player,” Diallo said. “In practice, I can’t slow the guys down, so I have to pick up on things very quickly. I gotta guard just like I’m playing. I gotta play just like I’m playing. I gotta prepare for a game just like I’m going to be playing.
“I’m just getting used to everything, getting a feel for everything, getting a feel for Coach Cal.”
And UK’s players are getting a feel for what it’s like to be on the same floor as Diallo.
In high school and on the AAU circuit, he was best known for his dunking ability.
That’s been on display at the Joe Craft Center this winter.
Diallo said that, yes, he has dunked on a few of his teammates. When asked to name names, he grinned and declined. Monk confirmed that it’s happened. Fellow blue-teamer Wenyen Gabriel said it’s become less common in recent weeks, but it’s not because Diallo’s teammates have figured out how to keep him away from the rim.
“People usually get out of the way when Hami’s taking flight,” Gabriel said with a smile.
Diallo, who turns 19 in July, is eligible for this year’s NBA Draft, but he told the Herald-Leader on Sunday that he’s focused solely on his development and is not thinking about the possibility of going through the NBA evaluation process after this season, let alone entering the actual draft.
He’s been adamant that he wants to play college basketball before turning pro. And, if he sticks to that plan, he’ll almost certainly be UK’s starting shooting guard next season alongside a whole new group of incoming recruits.
Diallo knows all of the Wildcats’ class of 2017 commitments from their time together on the Nike circuit, Team USA squads and various other camps.
He’s also acting as their eyes and ears in Lexington, saying that at least one of the UK recruits hits him up for info about their future home, their future coach, their future teammates on a daily basis. Calipari has told him that his early arrival puts him in a position to be a leader next season. Diallo is already dishing out advice.
“I’m just telling them guys, ‘Get ready. It’s a different type of basketball up here.’ It’s not high school no more. As soon as you walk in those doors, just be ready to work. Because it’s all about work.”
Kentucky vs. UCLA
What: NCAA Tournament South Regional Sweet 16 game
When: About 9:40 p.m. Friday
Where: FedEx Forum in Memphis
Records: No. 2 seed Kentucky 31-5, No 3 seed UCLA 31-4