The Cheick Diallo experience is 10 students painting their chests to spell out “FREE AT LAST” before the game started, and thousands more standing to cheer before he finally played, and chanting his name before he touched the ball.
The Cheick Diallo experience is a dribble off the foot in his first attempt to score, and then making up for it by sprinting the length of the court to block a shot into the seats on the other end.
The Cheick Diallo experience is realizing he is not Kansas’ best basketball player, or its best big man, or, maybe, even its best freshman, and that there will be moments of startling mistakes and others of jaw-dropping grace, and that through it all he very well could end up as the difference between KU’s third-round letdown of last season and its status as legitimate national championship contenders by the end of this season.
So, basically, the Cheick Diallo experience could be a lot of fun.
Diallo played, finally, in No. 4 Kansas’ 94-61 win over Loyola (Md.) here on Tuesday night. It was the kind of game that under normal circumstances would have interested only the most obsessed fans, the ones for whom each game is an appointment on the calendar. Except for Diallo — and that was before he went for 13 points, six rebounds and three blocks in 13 minutes.
“At the beginning of the game, I didn’t know what I was doing,” he said. “I was so excited.”
He became a fascinating character before he ever played a second of college basketball, in no small part because he wasn’t playing. The NCAA stumbled over itself in a bizarre investigation that made national news and included KU coach Bill Self publicly daring investigators to make a move, a leaked letter essentially calling the NCAA incompetent, many billable hours, and a well-we-gotta-do-something five-game suspension over $165 of impermissible benefits.
The episode accomplished two things above all others. First, it was one more unnecessary show of a bumbling organization enabled by the schools it purportedly protects wasting energy and credibility.
Second, it hyped Diallo a few steps past appropriateness. Self said he actually enjoyed the fight, because he believed in the cause, and felt so strongly he was on the right side. But it did create more attention than was necessary, and more expectations than were probably earned.
“To our own fan base, I was nervous for Cheick,” Self said. “I knew this was a highly anticipated game.”
Every story that was written, and every TV spot that aired talked about his talent, and his potential, and his being ranked as the No. 5 player in this year’s freshman class by Rivals, and the possibility that he could be a first-round pick in next summer’s NBA draft. Every game that went by made one more opportunity for the imagination to go, and there are few places where the imagination runs more than with athletes long on potential and short on experience.
So, a few things about Diallo. He is spectacularly raw on offense. If he is dribbling, the coaches are probably wincing. Once, he threw an outlet pass to Jamari Traylor, for some reason, who ducked and watched the ball bounce toward point guard Devonte Graham. The Kansas City metro area is full of high school kids who could beat Diallo in a skills competition. But, man, the kid can play.
Diallo scored 13 points on Tuesday, an easy setup for him to score over Loyola’s smaller players, and many of the baskets were highlights — a dunk off a fantastic behind-the-back pass from Wayne Selden, an ally-oop from Carlton Bragg, and a breakaway dunk (more on that in a minute).
He is wildly gifted, even by the standards of big-time college basketball and potential NBA talent. He stands 6-foot-9 with arms so long his fingertips hang near his knees. He has strong legs, which give him quick explosion, and plays as hard as anyone on the roster. When Self says Diallo can dominate a game and only score six points, he means it as one of the highest compliments.
Diallo is, basically, everything Self thought KU was getting with Cliff Alexander last season. He is what they missed down the stretch, and what could push them higher this season — a more explosive, longer, and potentially better scoring version of Traylor (who played really well, by the way).
Everything about Diallo requires projection, still, and will for quite some time. But he does provide a lot of what KU’s coaches think they will need to complement an otherwise skilled and experienced team. Everyone has room in the rotation for a long, active, athletic rim protector.
One moment that required no projection — that breakaway dunk. Diallo had it in the open floor, his long strides slowed by the need to dribble, and as he leaped toward the rim he raised the ball in his right hand and cocked his left hand behind his head, like Karl Malone used to do.
The place erupted with noise, of course, Diallo waving his arms and basking in one more moment. On the bench, Self held his face firm. Diallo has so much to learn, so far to progress from here to what the team will eventually need from him. Coaches are paid to think about what needs to be done, rather than what’s been done. So far to go with Diallo, still.
Then, after four seconds, maybe five, Self broke into laughter and hit the floor in front of him. Later, he would call the moment “cute,” and tell Diallo “we don’t do that here.” But even when he told that story, Self couldn’t help but laugh.
Yes, if nothing else, the Cheick Diallo experience will be fun.