New Orleans Pelicans Player of the Week: Cheick Diallo just needs time

Each week, Pelican Debrief veteran Charles LaRocca (@CLaRoccaJr) will choose one player to highlight as New Orleans Pelicans Player of the Week. We’d love to hear your feedback, in the comments or on his Twitter timeline.

This week, we focus on Cheick Diallo, a rookie whose fight for playing time runs parallel to the Pelicans’ own fight for Western Conference legitimacy.

The New Orleans Pelicans’ organization is at a crossroad; sitting at 9-20 and 12th in the Western Conference, the Pelicans continue to slip further and further away from any hope of making a playoff run.

The quicker management realizes that this season is a lost cause, the quicker the New Orleans Pelicans look towards the future. Their ability to do so will determine the fate of this franchise going forward. A merciless chase to the 8th seed will not. Now am I advocating tanking? Not at all. A team with a healthy Anthony Davis will always have to play to win, he’s too good of a player to just outright tank. Here’s a suggestion:

Tanking with Style  

The Pelicans need to fall with “style”.  For the first time in a long time, the Pelicans have youth. Even when teams are well out of the playoff picture their is a silver lining. You get your young players valuable game experience and hope that helps them long-term.

Question: How do the Pelicans fall in style? 

Answer: By inserting rookie Chiek Diallo into the starting lineup.

Diallo is the Pelicans second-round pick from this past draft, someone who has been a very intriguing prospect since the beginning. Just 20 years old and as thin as a rail, he was thought to be years away from contributing.

Admittedly, he likely is, but the Pelicans aren’t competing for anything this season. Diallo has impressed in limited opportunities this year, and seeing significant minutes next to Anthony Davis could potentially speed up his steep learning curve.

Realistically speaking, it’s the right time for the Pelicans to have an eye towards the future. Omer Asik has not been playing recently; Alexis Ajinca is not a long term answer at the center position; Terrence Jones is on a one-year minimum deal, and will likely command more than that this offseason.

That means is there is no long-term answer in the Pelicans’ front court. The front office has been trying to find the right player to pair next to Anthony Davis for years. In Cheick Diallo, they may have found him. Expectations should be tempered, but Diallo has the best bet out of anybody else on the roster to be a long-term compliment to Anthony Davis.

Lets make this clear, though: If you want to win games, playing Diallo won’t help. Diallo’s frame is very frail, and his defensive rotations are still not anywhere near consistent enough to help an NBA team.

The case for starting Diallo

Question: Is Alexis Ajinca helping this team win games?
Answer: No, no really. 

A big argument for playing Ajinca has been that the Pelicans need to showcase him and increase his trade value. That reasoning does not make sense for one main reason: Ajinca is a seven-year veteran in the NBA. Teams have enough evidence that he is not a good player that they’re likely not going to fall for a couple of weeks of him posting bloated numbers in extended minutes.

Another debate is that Ajinca is simply the better player. While that is certainly true for now, it is unclear by how much. Now obviously comparing Diallo’s box score stats to Ajinca’s is unfair, but I will just focus on how bad Ajinca has been instead.

Alexis has the second-worst net rating (-13.5) and the worst Box Plus-Minus on the team.

Cheick Diallo, meanwhile has been near the top of every advanced statistic for the Pelicans in a very, very small sample size. But when you’re a 9-20 team, those sample sizes are worth increasing.

In Alexis Ajinca, you know what you’re getting: a bad player capable of performing decently against certain match-ups. Diallo is an intriguing unknown, a piece of marble waiting to be sculpted. And it’s not like he doesn’t have raw skill, because he certainly does:

In the above clip, Diallo recognizes that he has the smaller Eric Gordon on him. In response, he simply rises over him for an easy jumper. This is just one example of his soft touch around the basket.

Here’s another example of Diallo’s soft touch. He has the shorter Paul Pierce on him (an advantage he should have against second units quite often as a lengthy four) and simply gets to his spot by using his length and soft touch. There was nothing Pierce could do about it.

Heres a clip of Diallo showcasing his range. He catches the ball in the triple-threat position, and when he realizes Sam Dekker is giving him space, he faces up and makes a shot from 20 feet out.

The young big man does struggle in pick-and-roll defense, and when defending the rim, he lets his man catch the ball too deep, often allowing the offensive player great position. He tends to overcommit as a help defender as well, which leaves his matchup far too open.

Listen: By no means is Diallo perfect, or even ready to play against starters in the NBA, but this isn’t about this season; it’s about building a core for the future. Diallo might be a part of that core, or he might not. But the options ahead of him certainly aren’t in the Pelicans’ future plans, so why not find out what Diallo can do?

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