LEXINGTON, Ky. — Since it was announced that 5-star shooting guard Hamidou Diallo would join the Kentucky basketball team not next season, rather in the middle of this one, but he planned only to practice with the Wildcats until 2017-18, here’s the scenario that has been rattling around in fans’ brains:
Two months from now, Diallo has settled in and started to shine in practice. Kentucky is in the NCAA Tournament. Star guards De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk get in early foul trouble, as they did in Tuesday night’s close call at Vanderbilt. And there sits Diallo, likely a future NBA draft pick, down the bench from a head coach with a decision to make.
“I wouldn’t do it for me or for the program,” he said Friday, before Diallo’s first practice with a team already 16 games into its season. “The only way that would happen is if it was in his best interests. But it wouldn’t be about – the situation wouldn’t matter. Up, down, sideways, wouldn’t matter. It would be about him.
“What I know is in his mind and what I see, he needs to get squared away. Let’s get your base set and then come back and do your thing. That would be my recommendation if he asks me.”
That’s not exactly slamming the door on the possibility of Diallo playing at some point this season — and the 6-foot-5, 190-pound guard from Queens, N.Y., has not fully closed it either — although the plan is to keep him on the shelf until next year. For now, Calipari said, Diallo will travel with the team but won’t be in uniform.
Even if that holds, he could be a huge help to the Wildcats. Sixth-ranked Kentucky (14-2, 4-0 SEC) already has a loaded backcourt with Fox, Monk and sophomore Isaiah Briscoe, but all three have a few rough edges that need smoothing. Practicing against an elite talent like Diallo certainly won’t hurt.
“He’s going to make us better, and we’re going to make us better,” said Fox, who knows Diallo’s game from the AAU circuit. “He has a combination of speed and power not too many people have. Back in high school, he was so strong and just big and more physical than everybody, so he could just bully his way to the basket. If you’re in the way when he’s on his way to the basket, you’re most likely going to get dunked on.”
Calipari said of the Wildcats other guards: “(Diallo) can make them come every day and have to bring it.”
That will be a two-way street, though, as what he’s trying to do is highly unusual. Fox is a former McDonald’s All-American, a projected NBA Draft lottery pick and one of the best freshmen in college basketball this season, but he can’t imagine trying to do what Diallo is.
“It would’ve been extremely difficult for me,” Fox said. “In the middle of the season, when everybody’s starting to try to hit their peaks and you’re just coming in — you’re at the bottom of the barrel, you don’t really know what’s going on — I think it’s extremely difficult.”
But that is the beauty of this plan for Diallo, assuming Kentucky can stick to it: there are no expectations. Fans, critics and most NBA scouts will never see any of his early struggles. This is purely a learning experience, which in theory will prepare him to hit the ground running as a seasoned veteran (by the Wildcats’ standards) next season.
“I don’t think you have any pressure,” Fox said. “You’re literally just coming in to get better. You’re playing against some of the top players in the country and they have a year, year and a half on him – he’s got a couple people that are a lot older than him. So at this point, he doesn’t have anything to lose. He’s just coming in with a clear mind, just ready to get better.”
Meantime, he already has several surrogate big brothers, none bigger than 6-foot-10, 260-pound forward Bam Adebayo.
“We’re just showing him the ropes around here: Where the classes are, food places, just basketball in general,” Adebayo said.
Calipari disagreed with the notion that what Diallo is doing now is a little like trying to hop aboard a train that’s chugging at full speed.
“No, this is great for him,” he said. “It’s great. I mean, he’s going to get to work out. All the stuff that he needs personally, you can really focus on what he needs. And then kinda shove him into some of this stuff and let him have a feel for it and go from there.”
Which leads us to another interesting question: Is this where college basketball might be headed? To more one-and-a-half-and-dones? To a flood of early high school graduates enrolling in college midseason for a few extra months of development?
“They’ve done it in football for a while,” Calipari said. “I don’t think in most cases if a kid is 17 or 18 he’d do it, but if you’re a little older and you’re in a prep school (as Diallo was), yeah, I don’t know why you wouldn’t. If a young man is 18 and he has a chance to go to college as an 18-year-old, he should do it. Just my opinion, unless you’re in a high school situation that’s really – you’re going to benefit because of every day practice.
“I’m not saying to do it, but if you’re of age and can do it, I don’t know why you wouldn’t.”