The prospective missing piece for Kansas basketball is a teenage big man who began playing organized basketball five years ago.
You might say that Cheick Diallo is still a work in progress. Born and raised in Mali, the French-speaking country in West Africa, Diallo is still mastering the English language. He is still finding his footing in his adopted country. Still growing into his long and muscular 6-foot-9 frame.
Day by day, his teachers and coaches say, Diallo becomes more comfortable in conversations, more likely to engage in the moment and express himself. But there is one place where Diallo, a senior at Our Savior New American High School in Long Island, N.Y., has never had an issue engaging or expressing. On the basketball court, they say, he is a ball of kinetic energy and emotion, the kind of player that belongs on the block.
The perfect player, in other words, for Kansas coach Bill Self
“He has a motor that you might see once in a lifetime,” says Terrance “Munch” Williams, who has coached and mentored Diallo for the last three years on the summer AAU circuit.
Diallo, a big man ranked as a consensus top-10 recruit in the class of 2015, announced Tuesday that he will play basketball at Kansas, ending a long recruitment and completing another spring coup for Self and the Kansas staff. Diallo, ranked as the nation’s fifth best prospect by Rivals.com, picked the Jayhawks over Kentucky, Iowa State, St. John’s and Pitt.
For Kansas, the addition of Diallo fills a large void in the frontcourt after the departure of freshman forward Cliff Alexander to the NBA Draft. The Jayhawks will return leading scorer Perry Ellis, a 6-foot-8 power forward, and they have added another five-star recruit in 6-foot-8 forward Carlton Bragg. But for most of the 2014-15 season, Self lacked a rim-protector and low-post presence to pair with Ellis, having to rely on undersized forward Jamari Traylor and still developing big man Landen Lucas.
Diallo, whose offensive game is still described as raw, may not be the antidote to what ails Kansas. But he was the best prospect available, another potential one-and-done player with a likely NBA future.
“He will need to get a little stronger for the college level,” said Eric Bossi, a national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. “But he brings so much to the table. He’s a big-time rebounder and a proven shot-blocker at the high school level. He can be a big-time rim protector with his length.”
For Diallo, a future at Kansas means the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of Joel Embiid, another African product who found basketball later in life.
Diallo’s backstory, in broad ways, mirrors that of Embiid, a native of Cameroon. Growing up in Mali, West African nation of 14.5 million people, Diallo didn’t start playing basketball until around 2010. He was discovered in Bamako, Mali, by a Mali-American talent scout named Tidiane Drame, who has since guided Diallo’s path in America. After coming to the United States, Diallo landed at Our Savior New American High School, where he lived with a host family and refined his game.
In interviews on Tuesday, Diallo (whose first name is pronounced SHECK) cited the influence of Embiid, who became an NBA lottery pick after one year at Kansas.
“I picked Kansas because they way the develop bigs, especially with Joel Embiid,” Diallo told Rivals.com. “I think I will play a big role there, because of my style of play.”
That style, according to Williams, is best described with one more: Motor.
“When he first came, he was a little raw,” said Williams, who runs the PSA Cardinals AAU program, which is based in New York City. “But you could just see that he had a motor, and he had a passion to succeed and be good. He just kind of jumped out and ran with it, and kept improving over the last two or three years. And here he is now.”
In the last year, Diallo cemented himself as one of the nation’s top prospects. He was selected MVP of the McDonald’s All-American Game in early April before earning co-MVP honors at the Jordan Brand Classic in Brooklyn two weeks ago. His numbers in the Jordan Game were especially impressive — albeit with the All-Star game caveats. Diallo finished with 26 points on 12-for-16 shooting and snared 11 rebounds. With a wingspan measured at 7 feet, 4 inches, Diallo can play bigger than his listed height of 6 feet 9.
He could project as a potential starter alongside Ellis in the frontcourt, and while Bossi says most talent evaluators take note of his work ethic and motor, Diallo has also made strides on the offensive end.
“I don’t know that he’s gotten the credit for developing his game,” Bossi said. “He’s not Tim Duncan in the low-post by any stretch, but he’s not deficient. He can score with a jump hook and his offensive game has improved a lot.”
For Kansas, which had three open scholarships remaining, the commitment of Diallo was critical. After a season of inconsistent offense in the paint, Self made the frontcourt a priority on the recruiting trail. With a top-10 big man in the fold, the Jayhawks will likely begin next season firmly in the top-10 of the national polls, perhaps higher.
For most of the spring, the Jayhawks had missed on a collection of top recruits. 7-foot center Stephen Zimmerman elected to stay home at UNLV. Charlotte graduate transfer Mike Thorne Jr., another big man, headed to Illinois. And in the last week, top-10 recruits Malik Newman (Mississippi State) and Brandon Ingram (Duke) headed elsewhere as well. On Tuesday, though, Self netted his big man.
On late Tuesday afternoon, Williams recalled meeting Diallo for the first time three years ago, just shortly after he had arrived in America. He was a project then, Williams says, but he always worked hard. Now he’s getting closer to a finished product.
“Night and day,” Williams said. “He’s been a delight to coach. He’s an extremely hard-working kid, wears his emotion on his sleeve, he’s all about winning. He’s so dedicated. He’s going to be a joy for Kansas coach Bill Self to coach.”