NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Kentucky basketball had just captured its third straight SEC Tournament title and the Wildcats’ locker room was overflowing with reporters Sunday afternoon. So how was it that a former 5-star recruit and likely future NBA draft pick was sitting all alone with his headphones on, undisturbed by the horde of quote-seekers?
Because Hamidou Diallo is in the midst of an unusual scenario, one that has seen him fade into the background this season only to leap to the forefront in just a few months. Ranked the No. 10 prospect in the Class of 2017 by Scout.com, Diallo enrolled at Kentucky in January and was eligible to play the second half of this season, but decided against it.
“It’s been tough for me seeing these guys going out there and competing every night and me just sitting on the bench,” Diallo told SEC Country on Sunday. “As a competitor, it’s been tough. But it’s all a part of a plan that I set, so it’s been a great experience.”
His logic: a post-graduate season at prep school wasn’t preparing him to play at the highest level, and practicing every day against the Cats’ elite talent would, but he wasn’t ready to attack college ball just yet. Many figured the temptation to play eventually would become too irresistible to both him and UK coach John Calipari, but they stuck to the script.
Now Diallo is expected to make his debut in the 2017-18 season with the rest of his loaded signing class at Kentucky, which includes five other top-50 prospects: forwards P.J. Washington and Jarred Vanderbilt, center Nick Richards and guards Quade Green and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
“I think I got a big jump ahead of my class. It puts me in a position to become the leader, because a bunch of guys are not going to be here next year,” Diallo said. “So I just gotta lead those guys that are coming in and show them the (ropes). Expectations are high here, so I’ve really got to buckle down as soon as we start running.”
The Wildcats will lose seniors Derek Willis, Dominique Hawkins and Mychal Mulder after this season, and freshmen De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Bam Adebayo are expected to leave for the NBA. Sophomore Isaiah Briscoe seems likely to do the same, meaning Kentucky’s backcourt will be wiped out.
That makes Diallo, an explosive 6-foot-5 wing widely considered the No. 1 shooting guard in the Class of 2017, even more important. He believes the extra semester in Lexington, plus a full summer of training ahead, will have him ready to step in.
“I’ve gained 5-7 pounds, I’m shooting the ball better, I’m faster, my skill set has gotten much better,” Diallo said. “I just became a much better all-around player.”
Then he slipped his headphones back on and went back to enjoying the relative peace of a guy not yet in the spotlight. That won’t last long.