About 15 minutes after the ninth game of his freshman season — a three-hour, three-overtime epic inside Allen Fieldhouse — Cheick Diallo pushed through a locker room door and bounced across the room, jumping in the air as the party raged.
Diallo, a 6-foot-9 freshman, had played just five minutes, relegated to a cameo amidst the plot twists and drama. He had collected just one rebound and didn’t score. But as the Jayhawks celebrated inside the locker room, his head coach said, Diallo could hardly be contained.
“He was jumping around, all in the locker room, jumping over everybody,” sophomore guard Devonte’ Graham said. “We were trying to tell him to calm down. He was way too excited.”
For seven games this season — two exhibition and five regular-season — Diallo was sidelined by the NCAA, a casualty of a long and slogging investigation into his academic eligibility. For the past month, Diallo has been constrained by other forces, specifically Kansas men’s basketball coach Bill Self’s strict demands and a crowded frontcourt with a crew of veterans. Once thought to be a missing piece on a team with NCAA title aspirations, Diallo has averaged just 5.4 points and 9.6 minutes in nine games. In his last four games, his minutes have been even sparser, averaging just seven minutes per contest. Self has laid out his philosophy, saying he trusts his veterans and won’t sacrifice victories for development.
“I mean, it’s not surprising,” Self said. “I think guys have to go through some natural things.”
For the moment, Diallo has remained positive and focused — and an active presence during practice. It’s a point, Self says, driven home by his enthusiasm after Monday’s victory.
“Nobody was happier after the game than him,” Self said.
Still, the case of Diallo is an intriguing one. Projected as an NBA first-round pick next summer — almost solely because of his athleticism and upside — Diallo could be one-and-done no matter how much he plays over the next three months.
“I don’t really think about whether I want to stay here for two or three years, because in my opinion, maximum is two,” Diallo said in an interview with The Star last month.
Self seems unswayed by that calculus, preferring to keep the focus on winning each game and developing his young players for the future, at the right pace. In recent weeks, Self has maintained that Diallo and fellow freshman Carlton Bragg could play a crucial role at some point during the Big 12 season. The Kansas staff, in essence, is just waiting for the light to come on. But as the Jayhawks wait, Self appears fully comfortable playing big men Hunter Mickelson, Jamari Traylor and Landen Lucas, three players with starting experience and more developed basketball acumen. Mickelson currently occupies a spot in the starting lineup, while Traylor and Lucas each played key roles in the victory over Oklahoma.
“This is what I told (Diallo) the other night, and I mean this,” Self said on Thursday, two days before No. 1 Kansas travels to Texas Tech for its first Big 12 road game. “I’d love for him to play a lot. The other night, there was no doubt that Jamari and Landen gave us a chance to win the game.
“It’s hard to put freshmen that really don’t have any experience in any real big games or anything like that — (it’s hard to) put them in the game when you’re down 10 to the No. 1 ranked team in the country at home. You don’t say, ‘Go win the game for us, you’ve never been here, go do that.’”
Like any freshman with NBA potential, Diallo has shown flashes of his talent. According to advanced metrics, Diallo has lived up to his scouting report as an athletic player who can make a difference on defense. His block percentage — a number that measures a player’s blocks while on the floor — is the second highest on the team behind Mickelson, and he is shooting 54 percent. Likewise, Diallo has shown glimpses of a raw player who is still learning the nuances of the Kansas system. On Thursday, Self likened Diallo — a player who began playing organized basketball four years ago — to a kid who attempts to skip kindergarten and go straight to first grade.
“(You’re asking him) just to jump a couple of the natural things that have to happen to get where you can understand the game and have better feel,” Self said.
For the moment, Self and teammates say Diallo is still engaged at practice, still working hard to shorten the learning curve. In recent weeks, Diallo has watched extra film with assistant coach Norm Roberts, who coaches the Jayhawks big men. He’s also tried to make progress in the weight room.
“He’s definitely learning,” Graham said. “He watches film. He works hard. He’s always in the weight room, asking different questions. You can tell in practice how he’s learning.”
In 13 seasons at Kansas, Self has coached his share of top prospects. He is familiar with the patterns, with the struggles, with the impatient nature of the outside world. Every player is different, Self says. Every player matures at a different rate. But as the Jayhawks prepare for their third game of the Big 12 seasons, Self remains confident that Diallo will be a factor on this Kansas team. For now, though, he is content to wait.
“It doesn’t have anything to do with intellect,” Self said. “It doesn’t have anything to do with that at all. It just has something to do with him being raw from a basketball standpoint. It’s going to happen.”