February 9, 2017 marked two weeks since Keita Bates-Diop — the Wolves’ second round selection from last Thursday’s draft — had surgery to address a stress fracture in his ailing left leg. The procedure put an end to his third season at Ohio State University after just nine, injury-riddled games. But on that cold, Thursday afternoon, something happened that was bigger than sports.
Keita’s brother, Kai, suffered a sudden cardiac arrest during basketball practice at University High school in his family’s hometown of Normal, Illinois. He collapsed on the floor, surrounded by teammates, and had no pulse for several minutes before being revived by a heroic athletic trainer.
350 miles away, 21-year-old Keita insisted on flying home through dangerous weather to be with his only sibling. Even though Kai would go on to fully recover from the horrifying experience, health concerns forced an end to his playing career. While helping his brother manage that heartbreak, KBD was compelled to evaluate his own relationship with the game.
“I think [Kai’s incident] gave me a better appreciation for not just basketball, but everything in life,” he explained. “Everybody always talks about how you’re blessed to be able to play this game, but until something happens to someone close to you where it could be taken away, you don’t fully appreciate it.”
Before KBD’s junior season was cut short, the five-star recruit’s career eight points per game raised questions about his motor. But he entered his final year of college with more than just two healthy legs; a fearless new perspective translated to heightened confidence on the court. He put up 19.8 points, 8.7 rebounds and 1.6 blocks en route to earning the Big Ten Player of the Year award as a senior. After managing only 17 victories without their outstanding wing the year before, the Buckeyes finished 2017-18 with a record of 25-9 and won their first-round NCAA Tournament game.
“[KBD] is one of the most calm and cerebral college basketball players I’ve ever seen. No matter the situation, Keita was always under control,” Patrick Mayhorn (@patrick_mayhorn) of Land-Grant Holy Land told Canis Hoopus last week. “His ability to keep things level, and his incredible composure was a huge part of Ohio State’s success.”
In leading his team’s resurgence, KBD’s versatile defense and shooting competence skyrocketed his stock as an NBA prospect. Before the draft, he was even mocked to be taken by the Wolves with the 20th pick on several reputable sites. But as the night unfolded, things didn’t go as predicted. Tom Thibodeau chose Josh Okogie, a sophomore out of Georgia Tech, in the first round. And over the ensuing hours, 27 more players were plucked before the Wolves returned to the podium — much to their surprise, KBD remained on the board.
Relative old-age and an unclear bill of health seemed to dictate his surprising draft night slide. As Mayhorn told me, “back problems are probably what led to his drop, but that’s more a result of teams [taking] risks on younger players that aren’t as good over an older, more talented player that could have back problems.” If the Wolves feel comfortable with the information that was provided, though, his polished game could benefit a team that is in need of instant help on the perimeter.
“He was in the discussion at 20 for a long time, sometimes it just works out that way and we felt we were very fortunate,” Thibodeau said during his post-draft press conference. In the abrupt aftermath of an exciting night, KBD seems to be a second-round pick with the potential to offer production as a rookie.
He’s appropriately built for a modern game that stresses the ability to guard multiple positions. At the draft combine, KBD was measured at 6’8.5” with shoes on and 224 pounds; his 7’3.25” wingspan and 8’10.5” standing reach are ideal numbers for a two-way wing. Experts have touted him as a player who could make an immediate impact on the defensive side of the ball. At OSU, he was nothing short of a stopper.
He possessed sufficient length to contain most college players on the perimeter, creating the deflections and blocks that his new head coach will reward. He’s also shown the potential to match-up with some of today’s smaller bigs.
On offense, during his explosive final campaign, KBD was promoted to the principal option of a group that lacked tremendous support. He scored almost 20 points per game, knocking down 36% of 184 three-point attempts to garner a respectable eFG% of .544. Though he tends to rely on his mid-range game, KBD is a sound shooter who utilizes an encouragingly high release from beyond the arc. He can also be effective with his back to the basket and is creative around the rim, but lacks the explosiveness required to be a well-rounded creator in the NBA.
“At the next level, he won’t be the primary scorer anymore,” Mayhorn explained. “This means he can do what he was always best at then he was in Columbus, and move off the ball to get open shots. He’s great off the catch, and can create in the post, despite his lack of weight.”
If he’s able to be effective without the ball and knock down shots for the Wolves’ second unit, he may fill a 3&D roll that his new team’s bench was without last season. Still, there are reasons that KBD slipped to the Wolves at pick 48.
*THE* pick from *THE* Ohio State. pic.twitter.com/WJf1IGnMWi— Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) June 22, 2018
Before the draft, I was skeptical that Thibodeau should spend his first-round selection on a four-year player who displays more refinement than upside. Above all else, last year’s trip to the playoffs proved that this team remains at least one high-end piece away from contending. When evaluating prospects, therefore, I would prefer the Wolves continue to pinpoint players with higher ceilings as NBA hopefuls.
This premium on the unknown is a part of what caused the OSU product to tumble down big-boards. At 22 years and five months old, KBD is just two months younger than Karl-Anthony Towns — to that point, he’s a whole 32 months older than Okogie. While the age of a draft entrant can overshadow other important factors, it’s a meaningful distinction when you imagine a player’s capacity to improve.
What’s more, KBD’s injury history is nothing to scoff at. Not only was he sidelined for almost a year as a result of the surgically repaired broken leg, there were unusual reports of discomfort in his back over the past several months. Both are concerning afflictions that would worry any team contemplating the deployment of it’s prized draft capital.
And though he checks a lot of boxes that are important on paper, questions remain about just how translatable KBD’s game will be to the NBA’s style of play. He does have a track record of respectable scoring splits, but it’s nearly impossible to anticipate whether a player’s aptitude to make shots will follow him after college. His career 35% from deep and 78% from the free-throw line are somewhat inspiring, but they don’t predict a future marksman. Either way, his ability to knock down open threes will be a deciding factor toward any hope of breaking into the rotation.
On the other end of the court — despite a decorated past as a collegiate defender — his unique combination of height, a slender frame and middling athleticism is difficult to project against professional competition. If his size doesn’t allow him to protect the paint and his speed is insufficient to contain speedy guards, he could have trouble utilizing such obvious talent. When I asked Mayhorn about this concern, he expressed confidence in KBD’s gifts: “I’m not particularly concerned about Keita defensively at the next level. He’s great at keeping his man in front of him, and while he’s not a top notch athlete, his length and basketball IQ should help him slow down non-elite wings.”
But it’s the same lack of explosiveness that will limit his output in creating for himself with the ball in his hands. And when battling against the world’s fiercest opposition, every perceived disadvantage is primed to be magnified.
Rare is the rookie that comes without drawbacks; acquiring two talents who would have been defensible at the 20th pick is a win for the Wolves. Not only are Okogie and KBD skillful prospects, they both have the chance to plug a hole that hamstrung their team over the course of last season. The hardened senior from Normal, Illinois is likely to be given the same opportunity as his first-round counterpart. In Mayhorn’s excitable characterization, “[KBD] was a top 20 talent in this class, and I think Timberwolves fans will really grow to love him.”