Cheick Diallo impresses with 27 points, 10 rebounds in Las Vegas opener

LAS VEGAS – It’s easy to dismiss a player’s statistics in Las Vegas based on the level of competition, but as New Orleans Pelicans summer head coach Jamelle McMillan pointed out after Friday’s opener, the bulk of Cheick Diallo’s 27-point, 10-rebound effort occurred vs. bona fide NBA players. Diallo was often matched up with Toronto second-year pros Jakob Poeltl (a lottery pick who logged 626 minutes in 2016-17) and Pascal Siakam (a second-round draftee who started 38 regular season games).

“Twenty-seven and 10, that’s pretty good for playing against matchups that are roster guys on the opposite (team),” McMillan said.

Diallo – who won’t reach legal drinking age until his 21st birthday on Sept. 13 – didn’t start any games as a rookie for the Pelicans, spending chunks of the season in the D-League. He played a total of 199 minutes in real games, with nearly half of those coming during New Orleans’ season-ending, four-game road trip. Still, in sporadic cameos he’s appeared to make progress, including wrapping up the regular season with back-to-back double-doubles. The native of Mali registered another double-double Friday, rolling to a 19-point first half and snaring six of his 10 boards in the third quarter vs. Toronto.

The University of Kansas product shot 8/10 from the field in the first half and finished 11/18, helping spark New Orleans to 47.3 percent accuracy. En route to the third-best scoring game by a player on Day 1 in Vegas, Diallo converted in a variety of ways, drilling jumpers, racing past the Raptors for easy hoops and using improved footwork to finish post moves in the paint. As he transitioned from college to the pros, Diallo has sometimes struggled with playing too fast.

“That just comes with knowing what you’re doing,” McMillan said of Diallo’s proper offensive tempo. “He did a good job of playing within the flow of the game (Friday) and not trying to force the issue. Sometimes you force your way into things. He didn’t force opportunities; they came to him. He took them when they were available. Overall, a big-time performance of 27 and 10.

“He’s really settling into his role, and what we’re expecting him to do. He’s kind of finding himself and where he can be most effective, within the framework of what we do.”

“Rookie year was tough,” Diallo said of his progress. “Last year, I didn’t really know what I was doing exactly. I was just playing basketball, but this year I’ve gotten so much more mature, so I know exactly what I’m doing. I know what my team needs from me for next season.”

Diallo has spent extensive time this summer on weight training and changing his diet, allowing him to add about a dozen pounds and some needed muscle. During Friday’s game vs. Toronto, he found himself in close proximity a few times to Raptors center Kennedy Meeks, a 6-foot-10, 277-pound rookie from North Carolina. The added bulk helped.

“Last year I was 226 or 227,” said Diallo of his weight, which is now pushing 240. “But now I thank God, because I can hold my ground a little bit. (Meeks is) a big guy, and I stopped him a couple times.”

The improved frame also may make Diallo more effective on low-post moves, instead of being bodied during his drives to the rim. On Friday, he frequently got to the basket for easy scores.

“(McMillan) always tells me, if I have a point guard (defending) me, I need to bully him like (he’s) a baby,” Diallo said. “I’ve been working on my post moves for almost six or seven months now.

“I don’t hesitate anymore. I used to think about it when I caught the ball. Now I’m just catching and going to work.”

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