COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — He was a 5-star recruit with dazzling, dunk-heavy highlight reels. He was a Kentucky curiosity whose legend only grew as he enrolled in January but sat out the second half of the Wildcats’ season.
He reached mythical status when he flirted with the NBA Draft, posted a 44 ½-inch vertical at the combine and waited until the final few minutes before the NCAA deadline to announce he would return to school for the 2017-18 season, causing much rejoicing in the Big Blue Nation.
But the most important question about Hamidou Diallo remained unanswered: Can the kid actually play?
Good news, Kentucky fans: It sure looks like he can. Diallo earned one of 12 spots on USA Basketball’s under-19 World Cup team this week, and in doing so demonstrated that he is much more than merely a freakish athlete. There were times during the four-day tryout that he looked like the best player in the building.
Oh, and he did it all under the watchful eye of Cats coach John Calipari, who also happens to be the Team USA coach. Calipari was positively giddy all week in Colorado, in part because of what he’s seen from Diallo and fellow UK freshmen P.J. Washington and Kevin Knox.
“You get a chance to see and learn about your guys before the season starts, which is pretty good,” Calipari said. “(Diallo) is playing the one, the two, the three. That’s what he is — he can play any of those positions. You see him around the rim, you saw that we posted him. I mean, there’s a lot of stuff that we can do with him.”
That much is apparent after Diallo, a 6-foot-5 shooting guard with a 6-11 wingspan and those crazy hops, tore through some of the best young players in America during USA trials. He erased all doubt whether he’d make the team with 22 points on 8-of-10 shooting in the final pre-cut scrimmage Wednesday night.
Hamidou Diallo is balling tonight. And-one, 9 points in 6 minutes of scrimmage. pic.twitter.com/GqzdnKLq2u
— Kyle Tucker (@KyleTucker_SEC) June 22, 2017
Diallo hit pull-up jump shots, drove and finished three-point plays, swished threes from the corners and wings. He also twice blocked UNLV’s 6-foot-11 center Brandon McCoy in the paint and locked down 5-star 2018 recruit Romeo Langford on the perimeter.
“I think this is really important for (Diallo), because he hadn’t played in so long,” said Mike DeCourcy, Hall of Fame college basketball writer for Sporting News, after watching Diallo for three days in Colorado. “You’re starting to see a more confident player, a more fluid player, and he’s making shots. He’s more of a threat now. He’s a lot more confident than the last time that I saw him, which was a year ago at the Peach Jam.”
That event, Nike’s annual AAU championship tournament, was the last time Diallo played on anything resembling a big stage. Back then, he was (statistically speaking) an abysmal 3-point shooter. Accordingly, and because he’s yet to show otherwise, that concern followed him everywhere for the last year.
And while Diallo’s shot cannot be categorized as completely fixed, it certainly appears to be on the mend. He was streaky all week in Colorado — which means some cold spells and airballs still crept into his workouts, but he also had a few impressive strings of consecutive made jumpers.
Hamidou, swish. pic.twitter.com/PsCy7tO3Vm
— Kyle Tucker (@KyleTucker_SEC) June 21, 2017
Bigger still for Kentucky, Diallo arrived at the U.S. Olympic Training Center as much as an hour before practices and stayed up to an hour afterward to work on his shooting.
“I told Hami, ‘They know you’re the last one to leave the gym now. It’s out there. That’s who you want to be,’ ” Calipari said.
But Diallo’s early arrivals and late departures this week weren’t just for the cameras and on-looking reporters.
“That’s me,” he said. “It just hasn’t always been lights on me, so people haven’t seen it, but I’m a hard worker.”
— Joey Landess (@joeylandess) June 21, 2017
Because of that, and all his room to grow, none of Kentucky’s three USA camp invitees — Washington also made the team and Knox would’ve, but he withdrew due to a hamstring injury — stood to gain more than Diallo by spending three weeks with Calipari in a highly competitive environment.
“(Calipari) will have a great head start with what Hamidou can do for Kentucky based on what he got from the three months of last season that he practiced and even more so now,” DeCourcy said. “He’s faster than everybody and jumps better than everybody, so as long as he knows where he’s going, he’s always going to be first.”
That is where Calipari wants Diallo in the leadership pecking order for the Wildcats. They lost eight of their top nine scorers from last season’s Elite Eight team and have no scholarship player who has been on campus more than a year and a half. Kentucky needs Diallo, a veteran by those standards, to take charge.
This team USA experience is an opportunity to prove that he can.
“Bonding with your coach, there’s nothing bad about that,” Diallo said. “He wants me to be a leader. He tells me every day how to prepare: ‘You gotta get yourself ready to be a leader.’ That’s what I’m trying to do — to lead a group of guys to a gold medal.”