The vast majority of players at Las Vegas Summer League can be split up into three categories. Some, dangling on the fringe, use it as a job interview. Others—i.e. high lottery picks—are here to dip their toe in the NBA experience and showcase their prodigious talent in a relatively pressure-free environment. And then there's the group that treats it like a workshop.
This third tier is filled with players who spend their time toiling away on specific areas of their game, either expanding their skill-set or better preparing for an increased role in the upcoming season—in games that actually matter.
New Orleans Pelicans forward Cheick Diallo falls into that last category, and after two games, he's quickly established himself as one of the most imposing players in Las Vegas. It's a short sample size, but Diallo is averaging 25 points and 10 rebounds per game. He's yet to miss a free throw and is shooting 55.6 percent from the floor. Few guys, if any, currently in Las Vegas share his athleticism, strength, and intensity.
At 6'9", Diallo has taken on the role of a bruiser. While that won't lead to any All-Star appearances, the value of that role is timeless. He doesn't need to be featured in a fancy offensive system to enhance it; he's a bloodhound on the glass who lives to create second opportunities for his teammates on either end of the court. That may not be exactly what the Pelicans currently need (shooting, shooting, shooting, shooting, and a little more shooting would be great), but on a capped out team that would very much enjoy a playoff appearance next season, the 20-year-old Diallo represents a drive for team-wide improvement that really matters.
"This whole thing is about him," Pelicans Summer League head coach Jamelle McMillan told VICE Sports.
If all goes well, Diallo's basement player comparison is Kenneth Faried, a maniacal hustle machine who lives above the rim and capably defends every frontcourt position. But there's more to him than that. Against the Atlanta Hawks, Diallo displayed a confident face-up game and was able/willing to attack from range with a spot-up jumper.
On one play, he swooped past Hawks rookie John Collins with a left-handed hook shot. There's touch and feel in his game. On the other end of the court, Diallo is using Summer League to improve his recognition; he thinks too much, and there were a few possessions defending a DHO or high pick-and-roll where he either came up too high on the floor or didn't realize what was happening until the ball-handler already got by him. The good news is he's quick enough to stick with most guards, and once he starts trusting his intuition to identify the other team's intentions, he'll be a presence down low.
Overall, the Pelicans should be thrilled so far with what they've seen from last year's second-round pick.