LEXINGTON, Ky. — Were John Calipari to build a perfect wing defender in a lab, it might look exactly like Kentucky freshman Hamidou Diallo: a 6-foot-5 guard with a 6-11 wingspan, 44 ½-inch vertical leap, elite straight-line speed and astounding lateral quickness.
“So, so long and athletic. You’ve seen the guy’s arms. They’re eight feet long,” said Brad Calipari, the coach’s son and a walk-on guard for the Wildcats. “He can touch the top of the backboard. If he wants to get a stop, he’ll get it.”
But there’s the rub. If he wants it. That is what Kentucky fans and pro scouts are about to find out. Diallo was a popular preseason pick among teammates as the Cats’ best defender — with a fairly significant caveat.
“If it’s his day,” sophomore forward Tai Wynyard said.
“If he wants to be, you know?” guard Jonny David added. “If he’s not being lazy. He’s got the quickness, got the movement, just gotta be able to do it all the time like Tyler [Ulis], like [De’Aaron] Fox, like those guys.”
Those two former Kentucky stars were lockdown defenders, but also respected team leaders. These young Wildcats need Diallo, the redshirt freshman who sat out the second half of last season and withdrew from the 2017 NBA Draft at the last possible moment, to take take charge in a similar way and provide what will have to suffice as “veteran” leadership.
“Leading means you gotta serve them,” John Calipari said. “I’ve talked to Hami about that. I said, ‘Man, you can’t go off in your room and put your headphones on. These guys gotta know you are there for them. They gotta know it. They gotta know you’re not just here to do your thing. You cannot lead if that’s who you are. And when your stuff goes south, no one is going to help you if you’re that way. If you want to lead, everyone here is going to be about you. That means they’ve got to know: Hami is for me.’ ”
One way to show that is on defense, which is all about effort, a demonstration of one’s willingness to sacrifice for the greater good, not just hang back waiting for the next outlet pass to throw down a highlight-reel dunk.
“Being able to bring it each and every play, it’s definitely tough — you gotta get in great shape — but it’s something that I’m working on, something that I’m 100 percent going to have to bring to the table,” Diallo said. “I’m going to have to defend the best players on the other team and be able to come down and do it on the other end. It’s all about being a two-way type of player.”
This summer was a big one in Diallo’s development. He started all seven games for a Calipari-coached Team USA at the under-19 FIBA World Cup in Egypt. Diallo averaged 10.9 points, 3.9 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.1 steals.
That experience allowed Diallo to shake off the rust, having not played in a competitive game in months, and gave Calipari a chance to figure out what the potential lottery pick can and can’t do — and how best to use him.
“I would say it was good for the both of us,” Diallo said. “For me, just getting to know how he’s going to coach me, getting to know how he wants me to play, him showing me how he wants me to lead. For him, just seeing what type of player I am and what I need to work on.
“He liked a lot of things. He liked my competitiveness and the type of two-way player that I am. The things he told me I need to work on: being more consistent and being in better shape. I wasn’t in great shape at the time.”
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Player and coach are on the same page about areas of improvement.
Calipari also mentioned conditioning, but more pointedly: “Every possession matters and you can’t act like stuff doesn’t matter.” He added that doesn’t really worry him, because nearly every 5-star freshman he’s coached had to reprogrammed in that regard.
“What happens to young guys: They don’t know how to truly practice,” Calipari said. “Like, for example, shooting. If you go in the gym and you tiptoe shoot and then you jump shoot and then you tiptoe shoot, you get in and start playing and you shoot it different every time. You watch a professional player: he shoots it exactly the same way every time.”
And after all, everyone who comes to Kentucky thinks of himself as a future professional player. Calipari has a remarkable track record for teaching young players what that takes, and Diallo will be given the full playbook. Soon, we’ll see whether he was willing to follow it.
(He would do well to take extra notes on the shooting stuff, because that remains very much a work in progress for him.)
For now, Diallo is at least saying all the right things about his willingness to work and to lead.
“When I was on vacation [this summer], I just couldn’t wait to get back on campus and get with these guys,” he said. “I feel like it’s going to be a great year. I’m just trying to show these guys the ropes since I’ve been here for a little bit.”
He could’ve stayed in the draft and might’ve been selected in the first round, meaning guaranteed millions. But Diallo bet on himself — and that Calipari track record — that another year of work in Lexington would make him even richer. If he’s right, the Wildcats also win.
“I feel confident in my decision. I didn’t look back. Once I made the decision, it was like, ‘I’m ready to hit the ground running at Kentucky,’ ” said Diallo, who shared his primary motivation to succeed: “Just seeing my mother wake up every day and go to work, just trying to give her the life that she deserves because he makes a lot of sacrifices for me, that’s my biggest why.
“My mom was telling me it’s no pressure — ‘Do what you feel is best for yourself; if you need another year, take it’ — and it just shows you what type of person she is, and it just makes me want to work even that much harder.”
His teammates know what Diallo can be if he wants to, and it sure sounds like he does.
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