The day that Jayhawk fans waited for all summer has finally arrived: Cheick Diallo has been cleared to play basketball for Kansas.
Diallo, who committed to Kansas on April 28, is a 6-foot-9, 218 pound center from Mali, Africa. Last season, poor rim protection and rebounding struggles plagued Kansas in its disappointing March, leading Bill Self to go out and find his next elite frontcourt prospect. After a seven-month saga of NCAA investigations, Diallo was cleared on Wednesday to play in KU’s next game, Dec. 1 vs. Loyola.
Of course, Kansas fans are overjoyed to have ESPN’s No. 7 overall player in the high school class cleared, but what exactly should we expect from Cheick Diallo? Back in the summer, I wrote about how much we should expect Diallo to play for the Jayhawks using patterns from former freshmen and big men under Bill Self. Joel Embiid, who exceeded expectations and went on to become a top-three pick in the NBA Draft, played just 23 minutes per game. Self certainly wasn’t in a hurry to use his star center more than he had to, even without a particularly deep frontcourt.
This season, the Jayhawks already have three centers competing for playing time. Through five games, the most any of them have played is just a tick over 20 minutes (Jamari Traylor). Landen Lucas is averaging 14 minutes, and Hunter Mickelson eight. Throw in Carlton Bragg’s 12 minutes per game at the power forward position, and that’s about 52 minutes that are already being distributed by Self. When Diallo is thrown into the equation, all of them, most notably probably Mickelson and Traylor, will lose playing time.
But what should we expect Diallo to do when he is on the court? Some fans are expecting the freshman to step in and immediately average a double-double. Not going to happen. As a reminder, Embiid had one of the best freshmen seasons ever for a Kansas big man, and he averaged 11.2 points and 8.1 rebounds. Last season, in 17.6 minutes per game, freshman Cliff Alexander posted 7.1 points and 5.3 boards. Diallo will almost definitely be right in between the two. At the end of the season, I think his per-game averages will be about 10 points, seven rebounds, and two blocks.
Right away, Diallo will be very raw. It’s well-known that his “motor” is fantastic:
Cheick Diallo will be the hardest playing guy in college hoops. Unreal motor. Like a great white shark with blood in the water. #kubball
— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) November 25, 2015
This is a good thing, but it will lead to some issues early on. Diallo will likely be over-aggressive and get into quick foul trouble, limiting his minutes in his first few games. His immediate impact will definitely be felt with his shot-blocking and rebounding ability. He very easily could become Kansas’ leader in rebounds after just a couple of games. Just don’t expect a bonafide interior scoring threat right away.
The good news here is that Kansas doesn’t need Diallo for his offensive game. His ability to stretch the floor will improve the Jayhawks’ transition offense, but they don’t need him to take over any games offensively. Perry Ellis, Frank Mason and Wayne Selden, just to name a few, are all established scoring threats that should keep Kansas rolling offensively, while Diallo’s defensive presence will improve the team’s rebounding rate and give the Jayhawks more possessions.
Additionally, right away, Diallo’s impact will be marginal compared to what it will be in February. The timing of his clearance is convenient for Kansas; with the next five games against Loyola, Harvard, Holy Cross, Oregon State, and Montana, Diallo has the opportunity to go through growing pains without putting his team in danger of losing.
By the time Big 12 play rolls around, Diallo will be more experienced and established, and the offensive game should be becoming familiar to him. Kansas opens its conference slate against Baylor, a team that boasts significant frontcourt size and rebounding ability, so Diallo will be needed from the start of Big 12 play. He will definitely be a factor in the All-Big 12 teams, and he has to be considered the favorite for Big 12 Freshman of the Year at this point. By March, Diallo will be arguably the most valuable part of this Kansas team, representing its best shot-blocker and rebounder as the highly-seeded Jayhawks look to make a deep tournament run.
Cheick Diallo could quite possibly become one of the most beloved Jayhawks of this generation. Nobody will ever be frustrated with his work ethic or doubt how much he wants to play. He’s a terrific defensive player, and fans will be surprised at how much his offensive game will improve from now to March. He truly is the missing piece to this year’s team. Now that it has its shot-blocking, rebounding machine, Kansas doesn’t appear to have any glaring weaknesses. This is a team that will compete for the National Championship. The Jayhawks are very good, but they were very good without Diallo. With him, they just may be the country’s top team.