By Clayton Collier
The NBA was a dream worth the wait for Cheick Diallo; even if it meant waiting a little longer than anticipated.
Diallo, at 6 feet, 9 inches, 220 pounds, widely expected to be a late first-round pick, was selected 33rd overall by the Los Angeles Clippers. The 19-year-old forward’s draft rights were acquired by the New Orleans Pelicans in exchange for the 39th and 40th overall picks. A 2-for-1 is a hefty price to pay in any exchange, but Pelicans general manager Dell Demps knew they had to get Diallo.
“You talk to people and say, ‘Is he a good kid?’” Demps said. “And they say, ‘No, No. He’s a great kid. He’s a phenomenal kid.’ In our interview process with him, when he walked out of the room, everybody just thought, wow. We all said, ‘Did you hear that? Did you listen to this guy? You want to root for him.’”
Demps said that first phone call with Diallo was one to remember.
“We talked to him on the phone, and he was so fired up and we were so fired up,” he said. “We were sitting there screaming and yelling on the phone.”
Rev. Ronald Stelzer, head basketball coach at Our Savior New American School, Diallo’s high school in Centereach, made a point to be at the Barclays Center to see his star pupil get selected.
“I was so happy to see how he reacted when he got picked,” Stelzer said “He was really excited and happy; beaming. Sometimes kids get picked a little later than expected and they get all mopey. Cheick had this child-like exuberance to have this chance to play in the NBA now.”
Diallo goes to New Orleans following his freshman year at the University of Kansas, where he averaged 3.0 points and 2.5 rebounds in 7.5 minutes per game, while also amassing 0.85 blocks per game, ranking 12th in the Big 12.
“I was surprised Cheick didn’t go in the first round based on preliminary reports I got,” Kansas head coach Bill Self said in a release. “The big thing is he was able to go 33rd and that will hopefully put him in a position to sign and get a guaranteed contract.”
Minimal collegiate playing time aside, Diallo was a highly sought after talent out of high school. The 2015 McDonald’s All-American picked up offers from the University of Kentucky, University of Louisville, Syracuse University and Villanova University, among others, before eventually deciding on Kansas.
A native of Kayes, Mali in Africa, Diallo came to Our Savior New American as a 15-year-old freshman. It wasn’t until a few years later that Stelzer said his coaching staff began to see professional-level talent out of Diallo.
“By his junior year, we knew he had something really special,” he said. “We have a lot of kids who have had talent, but he had a little extra athleticism. Combine that with an extremely hard worker, and he just launched.”
Diallo’s former college rival, Buddy Hield, also went to the Pelicans with the sixth overall pick. The reigning John R. Wooden Award winner now joins a rotation that will include Diallo and All-Star big man Anthony Davis.
“That mix of speed and athleticism and power is a great combination,” Stelzer said. “It’s the kind of situation where [Cheick] could make an immediate impact.”
Stelzer said his assistant coaches and Diallo’s host family were essential in getting Diallo from high school onto the next stage.
“We’ve been blessed, and we have a lot of people who have contributed in a team effort to make it possible,” he said. “I wish him the best. It was a pleasure to coach him; he’s a fine young man.”