The only UK player to make more than one three-pointer in the Wildcats’ 92-67 exhibition victory over Morehead State on Monday night was Hamidou Diallo, a player often maligned for his outside shooting.
Diallo was 2-for-4 from three-point range and led the Cats with 23 points.
Sounds good, right?
Not according to UK Coach John Calipari, whose first mention of his star freshman in the post-game press conference wasn’t exactly flattering.
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“Hami shot threes, and I took him out,” Calipari said, matter-of-factly. “You’re not playing that way. You’re going to drive the ball or I will sub you. It’s not that hard. So shoot a three, you’re coming out. He shot one, he came out.
“From that point on he drove the ball. He drove, he drove, he drove and then he got one three late in the game. That’s who he is. He will play that way, folks, and I love him to death, or he won’t play. But he will play that way.”
Diallo’s side of the no-threes-or-else story …
“No, that’s not what happened,” he said with a smile.
So, what happened?
“I think I took a bad three,” Diallo replied. “That’s what happened.”
That’s what Calipari wants to keep from happening in the future.
“He just doesn’t want me taking ill-advised shots, because it’s not good for our offense,” Diallo said. “I’m with him on that. Sometimes I tend to get into my old habits and just shoot stepback threes and things like that. He’s just trying to modify my game and make it as simple as possible for me.
“That’s why he’s such a great coach.”
Diallo was the top-ranked shooting guard in the recruiting class of 2017, but he’s never been known as a great shooter. He shot 16.7 percent from three-point range in his final summer on the Nike circuit, and he wasn’t much better than that in high school.
His strength has always been his ability to get to the basket, and then to use his explosive athleticism to finish it off at the rim. When Calipari says that he wants Diallo to drive, drive, drive, those are the type of plays the coach has in mind.
In the past, Diallo has played his own game and done his own thing.
Now, he’s thinking more about the best route to points: driving vs. shooting.
“It’s definitely tough, because I feel like no defender can stay in front of me,” he said. “It’s just all about reads and all about how the game is flowing.”
Calipari took Diallo out shortly after his first missed three-pointer of Monday’s game. A few minutes later, Diallo missed another jumper, and he was once again removed from the game. Toward the end of the first half, he missed another three-pointer and came out 10 seconds later.
Notice a pattern? Diallo finally did.
“I feel like I settled for a couple of bad shots, and he called me out on it. Took me out,” he said. “And that’s why I came here. That’s why I chose to play for him. He’s not going to let little things like that slide by, and he wants me to be my best version every time I’m out there.”
In the second half, Diallo attacked, and he scored 14 points. He shot 4-for-5 from the floor after halftime, including a late make on a wide-open three in the corner.
Fellow freshman Shai Gilgeous-Alexander often defends Diallo in practice. He knows as well as anyone what the 6-5 shooting guard with the 6-11 wing span and jump-out-of-the-gym athleticism is capable of. And he’s seen Diallo improve from deep.
“It’s made great strides, even since the summer when we all came here,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “I think that’s probably the most underrated part of his game. He can really shoot it, and teams will see that. And the scouting report will change.”
It sounds like Diallo’s approach to shooting has changed, and that’s an important step.
His high school coach, Tom Espinosa, told the Herald-Leader last year that Diallo was never shy about putting up shots and spending extra time in the gym. The problem, Espinosa said, was that Diallo would never shoot the ball the same way.
“He shoots it differently, almost every time,” he said then. “He needs to be more consistent with his form. Every shot should be the same, whether you’re 5 feet away or 20 feet away.”
Diallo apparently got the memo.
“It’s about consistency for me,” he said Monday night. “Consistency and shooting it the same way. And just going in the gym, knowing where I’m at and knowing where I need to be at. And I feel like I’ve improved dramatically.”
The sample size is still small on Diallo’s perimeter shooting.
He airballed a couple of threes in the Blue-White Game and was 0-for-3 from deep in last week’s exhibition victory over Thomas More. But those who see him every day in practice say that shot has come a long way and continues to improve.
When asked what would happen if Diallo becomes a consistent three-point shooter, Gilgeous-Alexander let out a long sigh, pondering the possibilities.
“I think he’d be absolutely unstoppable,” he declared.
That’s the goal.
“I’ve been shooting it well, and I’m just going to keep shooting it,” Diallo said. “It’s going to have to fall. I’m putting in the work, and I know it’s not going to change over a day. Just keep putting in the work, and if teams keep giving me open shots, I’m just going to keep shooting it until they start respecting me.”