Last season, Hamidou Diallo experienced a season full of highs and lows. Perhaps there were more lows than highs, but at the pinnacle, you could see why some in the Detroit Pistons organization viewed Diallo as a potentially significant piece to the future.
Diallo’s roller-coaster season actually started in the offseason. A restricted free agent, he was hopeful of fetching a decent offer sheet as a young player that had shown plenty of promise. Ultimately, that big offer never materialized, and he returned to the Pistons on a two-year, $10.4 million deal. As the season kicked off, Diallo found himself out of the rotation after losing a position battle to Josh Jackson out of training camp. It wasn’t really anything that Diallo did wrong, he simply found himself on the wrong side of a numbers game. Jackson played in the preseason, and he was given one last shot to show he had a future in Detroit.
Diallo was firmly planted on the bench to start the season, only getting occasional minutes at the end of blowout games.
The nadir was Nov. 12 when Diallo got into a disagreement with Dwane Casey after refusing to enter a game in garbage time. It’s understandable a player wants to see action when the game is in doubt, but it was not a good look for a player on the bench to get into it with their coach. It seemed like it could be the end of the road for Diallo with the Pistons, but Diallo would find himself back in the rotation after Josh Jackson inevitably began to struggle.
Diallo would find himself back in the rotation as a do-it-all wing who would cut, attack, and pressure defenses. Then a finger injury on March 9 would sit him out for the rest of the season. During his time in the rotation, he showed some flashes that leave room for hope, but there were also plenty of obvious holes in his game.
The biggest flash of the potential of Hamidou Diallo was a three-game stretch after Christmas.
With a majority of the roster in COVID-19 protocols, Diallo became a de facto go-to option, and he did not disappoint. He would score 28 points on 68% shooting against the San Antonio Spurs on Dec. 26 and followed that up with a 31-point, 13-rebound performance on 68% shooting against the New York Knicks. He capped it all off with a career-high 34 points and 14 rebounds on much less efficient shooting (13-of-32) in an overtime win against the San Antonio Spurs.
Even though two of the three performances came in losses, it showed the kind of offensive potential Diallo hadn’t shown consistently. It made the case Diallo was not just a freak athlete that can dunk from anywhere. He showed flashes of self-creation and the ability to hit some shots off the dribble. Even though he was hitting shots outside the paint, he only shot 2-of-8 from 3-point range. The lack of outside shooting has been the story of Diallo’s career and a large reason he finds himself in position battles with players like Josh Jackson.
As we enter a new season, Diallo faces a similar mystery about his place in the rotation as the Pistons have upgraded their roster. His skill set is a bit unique among the wings on the roster, but whether those skills will be needed regularly remains to be seen.
Know Your Role, Hamidou Diallo
There is a wide range of outcomes when it comes to Diallo’s role. He could enter the season as he did last year, being the de facto 11th man and playing mainly during blowouts or when somebody needs a day off. Given the current crop of players on the wing, this is a very likely outcome, at least initially, as the team is looking for floor spacing and has a bevy of wings who can do it better than Diallo.
However, Diallo’s ability to slash and make plays using his athleticism is something that many of the other wings fighting for playing time outside of Jaden Ivey are not able to provide. In last year’s roster crunch, Diallo lost his spot to Jackson because they had overlapping skill sets. In the context of this year’s bench roster, there is not a player on the wing who stands more than 6-foot-5 and is able to get to the rim like Diallo. But it will always be difficult in today’s game to hide somebody on the wing who isn’t at least a league-average shooter.
That is even tougher when the team already struggles from deep (32.8% and only 11.3 made per game). Acquiring players like Alec Burks and Bojan Bogdanovic was an intentional plan to add veterans who have track records of being very good 3-point shooters.
They will provide important spacing for Cade Cunningham and Jaden Ivey, but their shooting will be even more important as we wait to see how much improvement players like Cade Cunningham and Killian Hayes make as 3-point shooters. The trio of Cunningham, Hayes, and Ivey are all going to play no matter how much they struggle with shooting early on, so somebody like Diallo finds himself in a tough spot if he isn’t shooting the ball better from beyond the arc.
Hamidou Diallo does not need to become a 35%-plus shooter from beyond the arc to find a role with the team, but he will have to shoot better than his career mark of 28%. One specific area of improvement he can make is from the corners. He shot a little over 50% of his 3-point attempts from the corner but only converted 27.7% of them. Guys like PJ Tucker and Bruce Brown have been able to carve out roles on contending teams by becoming proficient corner 3-point shooters despite not being great above the break. Although both of those players provide more defensively, Diallo has a higher offensive ceiling if he can replicate what they have been able to do beyond the arc.
Diallo’s ability to slash and use his athleticism to score becomes more valuable to the team if he can also be kicked out to in the corner by a driving Ivey or Cunningham. It also forces his defender to pay more attention to him, which creates opportunities to beat them off the dribble, which is something that he has shown flashes of.
The Pistons have three young guards who are going to have the ball in their hands a ton. But they still need guys on the perimeter who can be ball movers. Diallo hasn’t really shown that much in his young career.
Diallo had a usage rate of 21.8% last season but only had a 9.8% assist percentage. The only other wing players currently on the roster who had a lower assist percentage were Rodney McGruder and Isaiah Livers, but both of those players are mostly catch-and-shoot 3-point shooters.
Assist percentage doesn’t always tell the whole story, but in this case, it confirms the eye test. Diallo has shown that he can score the ball, but he hasn’t shown much of an ability to do anything else with the rock. And if you are not much of a shooter on the wing, you have to have the ball in your hands more to be effective. He is able to cut and create scoring opportunities, but that can only do so much, especially when you are playing with non-shooters.
Diallo can get to the basket with a quick first step or finish inside after making a basket cut, but without an ability to make the most basic reads, it puts him in a tough spot if he isn’t able to get all the way to the basket or the defense collapses. He is never going to be asked to carry the ball-handling burden on the wing, but it doesn’t mean he can be a near non-factor passing the ball.
He can at least stay on the court defensively, which is a must for Dwane Casey. He will never be the kind of defender that you need to have in your rotation, but his athleticism is something sorely lacking from the rotation. He can get into passing lanes and generate steals, as evidenced by his team-leading 1.2 steals per game last season. He also showed some versatility by playing minutes at the 2, 3, and 4.
Diallo is still only 24 years old. While that seems old for the Pistons roster, there is still plenty of room for growth in his game, and he has shown enough flashes to at least keep around. At some point, the Pistons roster might be too good for somebody like Diallo to find a spot with his current skill set, but unless he starts to show some improvement in some of the areas above, it is going to be tough for him to find a consistent place in the rotation this season.