A mini-NBA Combine broke out on March 24 in Memphis. It came in the form of a Sweet 16 showdown between Kentucky and UCLA. The two teams squared off in a matchup littered with NBA talent, including six players who may hear their names called in the first round of next month's draft.
Kentucky was led by De'Aaron Fox's career-high 39 points, while SEC Player of the Year Malik Monk added 21 points. Bam Adebayo, Kentucky's interior presence, was quiet in 37 minutes, as was his counterpart in UCLA's Ike Anigbogu. Likely top-3 pick Lonzo Ball scored 10 points and power forward T.J. Leaf added 17 points and seven rebounds in the Bruins' 86-75 loss.
While the NBA showcase played out that Friday evening - Kentucky's Isaiah Briscoe is a potential second round pick, and UCLA's Aaron Holiday and Thomas Welsh have pro futures - a quiet, slender 6-foot-5 guard sat tucked away on the end of the Wildcats bench. Five-star prospect Hamidou Diallo didn't play in that Sweet 16 matchup. He didn't play before it, either, and he watched from the bench during the Wildcats' Elite Eight loss to North Carolina two days later.
His story is as unique as his game. He's the NBA Draft's biggest mystery, and maybe its most intriguing. And if he pans out the way some believe he can, he could also wind up being one of the draft's best.
"I think everybody has a different route to the NBA," he said at last week's combine. "We can sit here and talk about a lot of peoples's route to the NBA, but it's whatever best suits them."
Diallo graduated high school early in the spring of 2016, which made him eligible for the 2017 NBA Draft. He enrolled at Putnam Science Academy, a prep school in Connecticut. He played his last game in late December before enrolling at Kentucky for the spring semester, choosing the Wildcats over Connecticut. In January he practiced and traveled with the team but chose not to play.
Diallo said his decision not to play was to allow his Kentucky teammates to maintain the chemistry that had pushed them to a 13-2 record by the time he enrolled, but it also helped the 18-year-old maintain the same mystique that has NBA executives so intrigued now.
Still, his decision to attend Kentucky had its benefits. He was able to work with a coaching staff that annually churns out the most NBA prospects of any school in the country and practice against some of the top pro prospects.
"He's extremely strong. He's a great defender," said Fox, expected to be a top-10 pick next month. "When he was guarding us, when people always ask, 'What was harder: practices or the games?' It was the practices for me."
Added teammate Isaiah Briscoe: "He's a competitor. We're from the same area (New York). You've got to have that heart and competitive spirit to be on the court. He's a competitor. He's got that fight in him. That'll carry on at the next level."
Fox admitted that Diallo will need to shoot better from beyond the arc - he was a 26 percent 3-point shooter at Putnam - at the next level. Whether he improved on his outside jumper in his three months at Kentucky was not on display during last week's NBA Draft Combine.
Diallo, who has not hired an agent and could still return to Lexington, opted against performing any of the shooting drills or participating in the 5-on-5 games. Again, he created mystique about his game. Much of that decision came from his head coach, John Calipari, who has seen 21 of his players drafted in the first round since 2010.
"Just being advised by one of the people that's really been through it more than anybody else, what that guy says I have to trust 100 percent," Diallo said. "Because I feel like he's been through more than anyone I know."
The decision seems to have worked, at least for now. Diallo's strong showing in the physical testing drills and his meetings with 10 teams - including the Bulls - have allowed his draft stock to rise. It's not unlike the rise of Thon Maker, who became the first preps-to-pro jump since the NBA instituted its one-and-done rule. Maker was considered a borderline first-round talent, also sat out the shooting drills and scrimmages at the combine, and wound up going No. 7 to Milwaukee last June following impressive workouts.
"They don't know. Well, don't show them," Calipari said, speaking to a group of reporters on Thursday. "They all like you without watching you? Good. The more you don't play, the more they like you, the more they're impressed."
Calipari's latest recruiting class features six players ranked in Rivals' top 31, five of whom are listed as five-star recruits. They could also still add Mo Bamba, the No. 2 player in the class, and CBT ranked the Wildcats No. 5 in their preseason top 25 rankings.
Diallo would almost certainly improve his draft stock in a 2018 class that figures to be less top-heavy than the loaded 2017 draft, and the allure of playing for a national title contender (instead of watching one from the bench) is enticing.
"I got a text from almost all the guys today telling me, 'Hey, man, go out there and kill it. Do it for your family,'" Diallo said Thursday at the Combine. "I love those (incoming recruits) like my brothers. At the end of the day I have to do what's right for me and my family."
That decision is looming. While Diallo has until June 12 to withdraw his name from the draft and return to Kentucky, he'll likely receive feedback on where he might go long before then thanks to more team interviews and workouts. If he does keep his name in the draft, there's a team that plays nearly 400 miles north that should consider taking the mystery man who hasn't played a game in nearly five months.
Bulls general manager Gar Forman's quote about the Bulls wanting to get "younger and more athletic" in the wake of trading Derrick Rose last season hasn't exactly panned out. The Bulls signed aging veterans Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo, drafted a 22-year-old Denzel Valentine and only have Cameron Payne to show for an uninspiring haul at the trade deadline in February.
Assuming Forman's vision to "start changing the culture of the team," as he said in June, remains, Diallo checks just about every box. He won't turn 19 until the end of July, making him one of the youngest players in this year's class (and the second youngest first-round prospect, behind UCLA's Anigbogu). Diallo's athleticism speaks for itself. His 44.5-inch vertical was the second highest recorded jump in NBA Combine history, his 2.79-second shuttle run was second fastest and his 3/4 court sprint was third fastest. His "worst" test was his lane agility, and he finished 10th fastest among the 54 participants.
Diallo is far from a finished product, and has said he's open to spending time in the D-League to work on his game. While the Bulls certainly could use immediate help, that strategy has landed them Valentine and Doug McDermott in two of the previous three drafts. In between they nabbed Bobby Portis, who fell to No. 22 despite being a potential lottery pick.
Diallo even checks the box on a Bulls need; assuming Rondo, Nikola Mirotic and Cristiano Felicio return, the Bulls' biggest need will be at wing behind Jimmy Butler and Wade (a surplus of point guards makes that position a slightly smaller need, despite the talent deficiency there).
There's a boom-or-bust feel to Diallo's NBA prospects, but most of that stems from there being so little footage of him. The Bulls clearly liked him enough to sit him down, and it seems likely he'll have a workout in Chicago. If he's there at No. 16, and the Bulls really are looking to get younger and more athletic and make a real splash, there isn't a better realistic package of the two in this class than the mystery man from Lexington.
"I can see my dreams getting closer and closer," he said. "I'm just trying to stay level headed and be a great listener. Follow your heart and do what you want to do at the end of the day."