New Orleans second-year reserve forward Cheick Diallo grew up in the African nation of Mali, roughly 2,000 miles west of Joel Embiid’s hometown of Yaounde, Cameroon. Whether by coincidence or not, Diallo seemed to channel the entertaining and enthusiastic Philadelphia center this week when Diallo described his own development in the NBA.
“You just have to trust the process, man,” the newly-turned 21-year-old said. “Because that process is long. It cannot happen overnight. You have to keep working on your game. Last year I just came from college and was so excited to be drafted. But I didn’t even know what a team would expect me to do. In training camp, I didn’t feel like I did a bad job, but I was (just) OK, because I was trying to pick up a lot of new stuff. This year I know exactly what the team wants me to do.”
That starts with improving as an individual and team defender, something the Kansas product has focused on this offseason. Diallo knows that in order to maximize his chance to contribute in Year 2 with New Orleans, he needs to show defensive versatility. In a league that now features constant defensive switching and requires bigs to contain smaller players or run out to contest perimeter shooters, Diallo wants to be prepared for any situation.
“I played defense every day, because that’s what the team wants me to do this year, to be able to guard 1 through 5 (all positions),” Diallo said. “That’s my No. 1 goal, to be able to stay in front of point guards for four or five seconds, or one or two dribbles. That’s what I worked on all summer.”
Diallo played more regular season games as a rookie in the G League (26) than the NBA (17), only consistently suiting up for the Pelicans in April, after Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins were shut down with injuries. In four end-of-season appearances off the bench, he averaged 11.0 points, 9.8 rebounds and 1.0 block, in about 24 minutes a night. At Las Vegas summer league, he put up 18.6 points and 9.8 rebounds, while shooting 56.3 percent from the field.
As he prepares for his second Pelicans training camp, one of his primary goals is to make a bigger impact during the 82-game season. He wants to be New Orleans’ most impactful reserve, as well as improve his defensive reputation beyond shot-blocking (at 6-foot-9, he uses his wingspan, athleticism and leaping ability around the rim to contest shots).
“Last year I was doing a little bit of everything,” Diallo said of shuttling between the Crescent City and three different G League clubs. “This year is totally different. My goal is to be (the Pelicans’) sixth man, as soon as possible. I’m trying to be the best defender on the team.”
Playing behind a pair of perennial All-Stars in Davis and Cousins, Diallo has been eager to pick up pointers from the accomplished duo. Diallo believes that’s made him more prepared compared to last fall, when he was coming off a freshman year at Kansas in which he only logged 202 minutes.
“You have to know where to go when you’re on the floor with them,” Diallo said of being paired with either All-Star. “I have to be everywhere. Cousins is a great player, very talented, can also (attack) from the top of the key. He has all kinds of post moves. AD is the same way – he can do so much. So I have to be moving all the time. I try to move around the dunk area as much as I can, grabbing rebounds from the weakside, or tipping out balls to teammates.”
Diallo views Pelicans training camp as his opportunity to build confidence in the team’s coaching staff, something he hopes will lead to a significant role off New Orleans’ bench.
“I’m so confident and I’m not confused about anything,” he said of his mental outlook, with the team’s first practice set for Sept. 26. “I can’t wait for training camp, because that’s when you show that a coach can trust you and depend on you, that he can put you in the game in any situation.”