Before the 2019 NBA Draft arrives, Peachtree Hoops will break down more than 70 available prospects with an eye toward what the Atlanta Hawks may look to do in late June.
This installment focuses on Virginia big man Mamadi Diakite.
After years of disappointing results in the NCAA tournament, the Virginia Cavaliers finally reach the promised land in 2019, bringing joy to fans who had grown accustomed to the basketball program annually coming up short in the big dance. While the national championship team featured multiple NBA prospects, the team could not have reached the pinnacle without the hard work and defensive presence of big man Mamadi Diakite.
After two seasons of playing off the bench, Diakete, a 22-year-old native of Guinea emerged as a key cog in the Cavaliers’ rotation. He started 22 of 38 games while playing 21.8 minutes per game. The 6’9 power forward patrolled the paint and protected the rim on the defensive end of the floor while playing the role of screener, dunker and rim runner on the offensive end.
While many reliable mock drafts project Diakite as a fringe second rounder who may go undrafted, the young forward possesses a skill set and a profile with upside that could translate very well to today’s NBA game.
Diakite was certainly viewed as a mostly off-the-radar prospect during most of his college career. However, Virginia’s high profile run to the title included some special play and special moments from their unheralded big man. During the tournament, he averaged 10.5 points, 6.7 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game. His solid play included perhaps the most memorable play of the tournament: his game tying jump shot against Purdue in the Elite Eight that sent the game to overtime and an ultimate 80-75 win over the Boilermakers.
Without a doubt, Diakite’s primary strength as a prospect lies in his ability to play defense around the rim. He is an explosive leaper and an instinctive shot blocker who plays the role enthusiastically. As a freshman, he blocked 3.5 shots per 40 minutes played, which was the highest mark of his career, but his propensity to over-aggressively chase blocks resulted in frequent foul trouble (6.7 fouls per 40 minutes). As a junior, he blocked 3.0 shots per shots per 40 minutes whole cutting his fouls almost in half (3.9 per 40 minutes).
During the NCAA tournament, there was a distinct maturity to Diakite’s defensive game. His footwork was solid while his timing on defensive rotations and reads as a help defender were rarely too eager or too late. At times, he also demonstrated the athleticism to get out on the wing and defend smaller players. He was clearly one of the standout defensive players in the tournament.
His impressive shot-blocking aside, some critics point to Diakite’s less than impressive collegiate rebounding numbers as a reason to doubt whether he projects as an NBA player at all. In his junior year, he only tallied 4.4 rebounds per game. However, a closer look at game film shows that Diakite doesn’t get beat on the boards often. Instead, UVA’s rebounding totals were dispersed among the squad, to guards, wings and bigs alike.
The biggest uncertainty surrounding the youngster’s value as an NBA prospect is the question as to what he can contribute on the offensive end. He was frequently the fourth or fifth option on offense for Virginia, as he attempted just 5.8 field goals per game. Still, he was fourth on the team scoring 7.4 points per game and the three players ahead of him are expecting to be selected in the upcoming draft with two of them likely to go in the first round.
Some may describe Diakite’s participation on offense as passive or unassertive. The flip side to this argument is that he is a player who doesn’t need shots, and doesn’t even need the ball in his hands, to feel engaged and to contribute on offense. He is content in actions such as high screens, pick and roll and rim running. He is clever working behind the defense in the dunker role.
Diakite is comfortable in these roles and actions, all of which are staples of today’s NBA game. There is certainly value in having a player who can contribute offensively but is able and willing to give a solid, max effort on defense even when going multiple possessions without even getting a touch on the offensive end.
The 2019 draft, like many drafts before and many drafts that lie ahead, will include no shortage of bigs who are large and athletic but have limited offensive prowess and are labelled as non-shooters. Diakite may be quickly painted with that broad brush but that label may not be entirely fair.
In his college career, he made just eight shots from behind the three-point line on 28 attempts. Those numbers are the definition of very limited volume. While a clip of 29% on limited volume does not profile Diakite as a shooter in any way, combining those numbers with solid free throw shooting over his final two seasons of college basketball perhaps indicate the he could potentially develop his jump shot. There plenty of NBA big men today who were “non-shooters” in college and early in their NBA careers but became reliable shooters over time.
The ultimate question about Diakete’s value as a prospect lies in whether he only profiles as a center with a limited offensive skill set. If he is assessed accordingly, he can quickly get marked as under-sized to play the only position he could play. This conclusion likely contributes to the assessment that he is a fringe second rounder who make go undrafted.
All of this said, there is a potential assessment of Diakite that is almost precisely inverse the conclusion that he is undersized with a limited skill set. If any NBA team believes that he is a long, athletic player who can get out on the wing and defend NBA players and has some level of upside to his offensive game, his value and potential landing spot in the draft could change drastically.
This may be a long-shot scenario but is perhaps not completely outside the realm of possibility. While NBA teams are always looking for shooters and floor spacers, no NBA team has too many wing defenders and wing defenders who are 6’9 with a potential wingspan of 7’3 are extremely rare.
It is almost impossible to prognosticate what any NBA team will do with a second round pick, but the Hawks have multiple second round picks and could target Diakite, who worked out for the team on May 7. His profile and energy as a defender may be a match with Coach Lloyd Pierce’s style of play and the Hawks do need depth everywhere on the roster, including the position, or positions, he could play.