At first blush, Hamidou Diallo’s decision to enter this year’s NBA Draft and hire an agent seems like much more than merely testing the waters. It’s a full immersion, hold your nose and jump into the deep end leap of faith.
Diallo, who acknowledged his struggles playing for Kentucky in 2017-18, announced Monday the end of his college career after one season. Sink or swim, there’s no turning back. He is fully invested in becoming an NBA player.
“It’s exciting for Hamidou and, obviously for us,” said Tom Espinosa, who coached Diallo three seasons for Putnam Science Academy in Queens, N.Y. “We couldn’t be happier and more excited for this next journey.”
But Espinosa acknowledged the dangers that lurk. Most draft projections do not list Diallo as a first-round pick. The specter of a slog through the NBA’s G League seems a possibility.
“I’ll be honest with you,” Espinosa said. “That’s what I’m scared of. I just feel that if you’re not a guaranteed first-round pick, to me, it’s tough for you to go to the draft, you know?”
Coach John Calipari called Diallo “the best athlete in the draft” in a statement released by UK.
Diallo entered the draft last year but decided to return to Kentucky.
“Hami got better in all areas of his game,” the UK coach said. “True growth happens when you get knocked down to the point of questioning yourself. We already knew how talented of a player Hami was physically and athletically, but we all learned about Hami’s toughness, his character and his desire to win. I am so proud of his growth from beginning to end. He’s prepared to succeed and will succeed.”
Diallo showed this past season that he knows how to persevere in difficult times. He struggled to get comfortable and find a niche through much of the season.
“Pressing, trying too hard,” former UK All-American Kenny Walker said. “Trying to show NBA scouts . . . that he was a three-point shooter or he could make outside shots. He got away from things he does very well.
“I love Hami,” Walker added. “I like how he kind of redeemed himself.”
Redemption came in the form of a 22-point performance that helped Kentucky beat Buffalo in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
“He wasn’t thinking,” teammate Wenyen Gabriel said of Diallo after the game. “He just played his game.”
Diallo agreed with that assessment.
“I’ve been playing through so much adversity that I was just trying to go out there and just play the game,” he said in the winning locker room in Boise.
Another teammate, Sacha Killeya-Jones, said he never feared that Diallo would wilt under the weight of adversity. “He has that dog mentality,” Killeya-Jones said.
Said Diallo, “That’s just the New York City in me.”
Diallo became the fourth UK player to announce he will enter this year’s NBA Draft. He was the third to say he would hire an agent, thus eliminating the chance of returning to UK. Kevin Knox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander did likewise. PJ Washington entered his name, but said he would not hire an agent.
Diallo said in a statement released by UK on Monday that “nothing made me prouder than to put that Kentucky name across my chest.” Diallo thanked his coaches and teammates for pushing him to his limits.
“Coming back to school I knew wasn’t going to be easy. Coach Cal told me it would be the hardest thing I would ever have to do and it was. But I grew up and became a man this year on and off the court. I know I’ve only scratched the surface with my game.”
Walker said Diallo could be a “tremendous defensive player” and a capable rebounder in the NBA.”
“I know he was very close to going last year,” Walker said. “I’d love to see him come back (and) just show a little bit more of his overall game, leadership and a better attitude.”
Espinosa took comfort in the knowledge that Calipari could advise Diallo on the decision. “He had probably the best person to tell him what to do,” Espinosa said of Calipari. After Calipari’s first eight seasons as coach, 31 UK players were drafted (24 in the first round).
Diallo averaged 10.0 points and 3.6 rebounds for Kentucky this past season. His shooting percentages supported a perception that NBA scouts questioned this phase of his game: 42.8 percent overall, 33.8 percent from three-point range and 61.6 percent from the free throw line.
ESPN analyst Jay Bilas projected Diallo as a second-round pick.
“But his athleticism is first round,” Bilas said. “(He) can defend and run in transition with anyone in the league. But his skill level is not there yet. So his offense is behind. That’s something he’ll have to deal with. ... Athletically, he can hang with anybody.”
When asked if Diallo was ready for NBA-level basketball, Espinosa said, “It’s tough. He had his ups and downs. You saw his flaws. . . . It’s his skill work. Shooting the ball. Handling it. . . .
“Personally, I love to see guys stay in college and really develop their skills more. But, nowadays, it’s kind of unusual to do that.”