COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — What we learned from scouting the USA Basketball’s Under-19 team trials, which began with a roster of 27 college and high school players, and trimmed it to 12 in advance of the squad’s trip to the FIBA U19 World Cup in Cairo, Egypt:
Diallo has more explosiveness but less offensive polish than recent Kentucky two-guards Malik Monk and Jamal Murray. Diallo’s jump-shot mechanics have improved during his time in Lexington, but he’s not a knockdown guy from the perimeter, and his aggressiveness—especially in transition during the U19 trials—resulted in more turnovers and forced shots than Calipari will probably tolerate in a college setting. Thus this summer gig is ideal for the Kentucky coach: He gets to spend three extra weeks shaping Diallo into the scoring guard the U19 team needs … which will better position him to be the scoring guard that Kentucky needs in ’17–18. Diallo spent his first semester at UK playing on its scout team, emulating opposing wings such as North Carolina’s Justin Jackson, but that wasn’t a role conducive to significant development. “When a guy’s not playing, you’re on the taxi squad, and every day [I’m saying], ‘You’re the best,'” Calipari said of Diallo. “Now, I’ve gotta coach him.”
Diallo was nearly gone from Kentucky in May. A subtle fashion choice at the U19s—he was the only camper trying out while wearing white, NBA-logoed socks—was a reminder that he declared for the 2017 NBA draft and participated in athletic testing at the league’s combine, where he leaped to the second-highest vertical jump in the event’s history, at 44.5 inches. Diallo was considering becoming the first 0.5-and-done player under the NBA’s current draft rules, and Calipari joked during the combine, “If [Diallo’s] a lottery pick, I’m retiring. I’m done. There’s nothing more I can do.”
The decision went down to the wire. On May 24, the final day for underclassmen to withdraw from the draft, Diallo auditioned for the Knicks at their Tarrytown, N.Y., practice facility. The workout ended at around 7 p.m., after which he returned to his home in Queens, talked things over with family and a small group of friends—and spoke with Calipari three times by phone. The first call, shortly after the workout, was to discuss what the Kentucky coach had heard from the Knicks. The second, around 10 p.m., was a more substantive conversation about the draft, in which Calipari talked about the risks of being on the first-round fringe, where Diallo’s stock seemed to be realistically hovering—in a place between a guaranteed contract and an uncertain future. “I was just kicking it at home, acting like [the decision] wasn’t a big thing,” Diallo said, “but then as time came closer, it became harder and harder.”
He deliberated until around 11:30 p.m.—a half-hour before the deadline—and then called Calipari to let him know he was staying. “His exact words, then, were, ‘It’s time to work,'” Diallo said. The first job was to write an e-mail to the NBA (on his iPhone) that officially removed his name from the draft. Diallo sent it at around 11:45 p.m. and tweeted the news shortly after midnight. In the following days, he began prep for the U19s, where he made the final cut. When Team USA debuts on July 1 in Cairo, Diallo will end the longest basketball layoff of his life: He last played in a real game on Dec. 21, 2016, when he was a high school senior at Putnam (Conn.) Science Academy.
* The U19s’ rising sophomore on the cusp of stardom is Georgia Tech wing Josh Okogie. As a freshman for the surprise NIT runner-up Yellow Jackets, Okogie averaged 16.1 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.6 assists in 30.8 minutes, which meant he had a more productive season than nearly all of the RSCI’s top 100 recruits—a group of which he, as a three-star guard out of Snellville, Ga., was not a member. As Okogie said on his second day in Colorado Springs, “Rankings don’t really save you when you’re on the court.” He then beat out a number of higher-profile players for a spot on the final U19 roster.
Okogie was an infrequent three-point shooter as a freshman, taking 1.9 attempts per game (and making 37.1% of them), but seems likely to ramp up his long-range volume (and most likely, his overall scoring efficiency) as a sophomore. He was a confident catch-and-shoot option from the corners during U19 scrimmages, and with his 7-foot wingspan and linebacker-like build, he’s capable of defending four college positions despite being just 6’4″. With a big season, Okogie could push himself into the 2018 or 2019 draft conversation as a 3-and-D prospect.
* As for my favorite incoming freshman at the camp … it was a tie between Kentucky-bound Kevin Knox II and UCLA-bound Kris Wilkes. Knox withdrew from the trials with a tweaked hamstring, but in the five sessions he did play, the 6’8″ wing was one of Team USA’s smoothest scorers. He can handle the ball in transition like a guard, and in the halfcourt, he spaces the floor as a hybrid 3/4 forward with shooting and slashing ability. I suspect Knox will be Kentucky’s best long-range gunner next season, and few players anywhere will match the arc on his threes. They’re legitimate rainmakers.
Wilkes, a 6’7″ small forward who spurned home-state schools in Indiana to commit to the Bruins, was the most surprising (to me, at least) first-round cut from the trials. Over the first two days of camp, he appeared to be one of the most polished offensive options, knocking down catch-and-shoot threes on the wing and mid-range jumpers coming off of curls—plus he was a dynamic, long-striding scorer in transition. We won’t get to see Wilkes on FIBA’s webcasts from Cairo, but I’m looking forward to watching more of him at UCLA. If he’s truly only the No. 20 player in his high-school class—and that’s where Wilkes sits in the final RSCI rankings—then college hoops is getting a real influx of talent in ’17–18.
Forwards/Centers: Austin Wiley (Soph., Auburn), Brandon McCoy (Fr., UNLV), P.J. Washington (Fr., Kentucky), Louis King (H.S., Columbus, N.J.).
Second round of cuts: Quinton Rose (Soph., Temple), Mitchell Robinson (Fr., Western Kentucky), Bol Bol (H.S., Santa Ana, Calif.), Jordan Brown (H.S., Roseville, Calif.). Injury withdrawals: Kevin Knox (Fr., Kentucky), Chuma Okeke (Fr., Auburn).
First round of cuts: Shamorie Ponds (Soph., St. John’s), Charlie Moore (Soph., Kansas), De’Anthony Melton (Soph., USC), Marques Bolden (Soph., Duke), Desmond Bane (Soph., TCU), Devon Daniels (Soph., N.C. State), Malachi Flynn (Soph., Washington State), Kris Wilkes (Fr., UCLA), Chaundee Brown (Fr., Wake Forest)