As the Phoenix Suns won their 10th game of the season last night, it was the usual suspects who paved the way to victory in the 2nd half and overtime. Devin Booker looked phenomenal with his 44 points, 8 rebounds, and 9 assists. Ricky Rubio chipped in 15 assists, and Kelly Oubre 15 rebounds. Cam Johnson couldn’t miss from distance.
But quietly, Cheick Diallo turned in yet another solid performance off the bench. Diallo only played 11 minutes in this one, but during that time he strung together a line of 8 points, 4 rebounds and an assist. It’s far from his most impressive outing of the year, but it was another consecutive positive contribution from a player who almost everyone considered an afterthought this summer.
In the midst of the Suns’ worst stretch of the young season, Diallo has found a way to flourish. Over his past 5 games, he’s averaging 12.6 points and 5.2 rebounds off the bench on 25-31 shooting (81%). He’s even gone 12-13 from the free throw line. This has led many in the community to wonder just where this guy came from.
Let’s be clear about one thing. As inconspicuous a move as the Diallo signing was in late July, that does not mean Diallo was a complete unknown around the league. In his 3rd season with New Orleans, he appeared in 64 games for an average of 14 minutes per contest.
Those aren’t garbage time minutes on one of the league’s bottom feeders. Diallo was a legitimate rotation piece for a 33-win team, chipping in just over 6 points and 5 rebounds per game on 64% true shooting.
Of course, Diallo didn’t blow anyone away with his opportunity in New Orleans, which led to him signing with Phoenix for just the league minimum. But much of the touch around the basket that we’re seeing now was clearly present in New Orleans last year.
Didn't get around to really saying anything about it a couple days ago but aspects of Diallo's game really make you miss Richaun just a bit less.— Sam Cooper (@scooperhoops) July 21, 2019
Diallo scores 1.16 PPP as a PnR finisher for his career, good for 65th percentile. Much, much better than either Kaminsky or Baynes. pic.twitter.com/ycWNCYXpqj
Beyond that sweet touch, there are a variety of new tricks in the 23-year-old’s arsenal this season. Tricks that make him a much more legitimate backup center, and a terrific 3rd string depth piece for when both Ayton and Baynes return.
First of all, Diallo has seemingly built on what was already his best asset: his pick-and-roll finishing ability.
It’s a small sample size, but Diallo is 12-for-16 on field goal attempts stemming from the pick-and-roll this season. That converts to 1.42 points per possession, which ranks 88th percentile in the NBA in efficiency.
Most importantly, he’s finishing these plays with a forcefulness we’ve never seen from him before. To this point, Diallo has always been a finesse finisher. Now, it’s increasingly common to see plays like this from the big man:
He’s significantly increased the proportion of his field goal attempts that are dunks, from just 9 percent last season to over 21 percent this year.
But on the other hand, he hasn’t completely limited himself to the paint. This was perhaps the most surprising shot of the season so far for any Phoenix Sun:
I’m not here to make much out of a 1 shot sample size, but it was encouraging to see Diallo take that shot with such confidence and generally without hesitation. If he can take that without Monty Williams immediately reprimanding him, who’s to say Deandre Ayton shouldn’t be able to when he returns in another couple of weeks?
Diallo’s defense has stood out in a short sample size as well. While he is a little eager to jump on contests in the paint, the gap between Diallo and Kaminsky when it comes to rim protection couldn’t be wider. He’s agile enough that Monty Williams appears comfortable with switching him onto some guards, and in many instances this season he’s been able to effectively contain smaller players and swallow up their drives, using his length to contest without fouling. Here’s a longer video with some of Diallo’s rim protection on display.
In fact, Diallo is allowing opponents to shoot just 54% from inside 6 feet in his limited minutes this season, despite league average from that range being approximately 60%. Kaminsky, on the other hand, is allowing 64% shooting from that same range.
The obvious knock on Diallo is that, as athletic as he is, his game is fairly cut-and-dry. Unless he develops his range, he consistently patrols the elbow area of the court on every offensive possession, waiting to set a high screen or deliver a handoff to a guard and subsequently roll to the basket for a dunk or floater. His passing ability is nowhere near that of Kaminsky, Baynes, or Ayton, as Diallo has delivered just 8 assists in 155 minutes.
And yet even there we’re seeing positive signs. Just last night, Diallo made one of the toughest passes of his career, splitting the defense and setting up Mikal Bridges for the slam.
Monty Williams’ system calls for every player to see himself as a playmaker, and Diallo has done a solid job of conforming to that system even if it isn’t representative of who he was in New Orleans.
With Aron Baynes out day-to-day and Deandre Ayton on the bench for just 5 more games, who knows how much more opportunity Diallo will receive this season. The 4th-year big is fighting for his NBA life, as the Suns will have to decide on his $1.8 million team option this summer or else release him back into the free agent pool.
But so far, he’s certainly made himself look like a prospect worth developing.