There are plenty of things players, coaches and front office personnel can control during an NBA season. Tactics and schemes are super important. Tweaks in a rotation can make or break a team. And it’s no secret how a player’s form can affect whether a team wins or loses.
However, injuries are different. Nobody can determine when or how they’re going to happen. They have derailed many a season before and they will do so again. Through the first 18 games of the Minnesota Timberwolves season, they have already been hit by the injury bug.
Shabazz Napier, Treveon Graham, Josh Okogie, Jeff Teague and Jake Layman have all missed games through injury or illness and that has opened the door for lesser-known prospects to take the step up. After an encouraging finish to his rookie season, Keita Bates-Diop, the 48th pick in the 2018 draft, has been the beneficiary of those nagging ailments this season. And, unlike his G-League counterparts Jordan McLaughlin and Kelan Martin, he’s taken his chance and run with it.
Since reentering the rotation seven games ago, the 6-foot-8 combo forward has averaged 9 points and 3 rebounds in just under 19 minutes a night while shooting a blistering 56.3 percent from the field and 50 percent from deep. Without Jake Layman for the past four games, he has upgraded those numbers to 23.2 minutes, 12.8 points and 3.6 rebounds on 58.3 percent shooting and 47.6 percent from beyond the arc.
On a team that has struggled to find consistent shooting and general scoring punch, the 23-year-old’s early breakout is akin to finding a glistening diamond in a coal mine. The best part about it is he isn’t pigeonholed into a single skill set. He is adaptable, smart and polished while knowing his niche and exactly how he can impact a game without doing too much.
He clearly knows that Ryan Saunders’ new system asks his players to launch 3-pointers at every available opportunity and he is buying into it completely. He shot 25 percent on 3.7 triples per 36 minutes last season. After his first full offseason working out with the team and bettering his game, he is shooting a red-hot 50 percent on almost double the attempts (6.7 per 36).
He has it going from all areas of the court, but it’s been his corner trey ball that is really making a difference to the new shot-happy Timberwolves scheme. He is shooting 9-13 (71.2%) from the corner and has quickly become a spot-up sniper that provides the new pass-heavy version of Andrew Wiggins a kick-out option after he collapses a defense or Karl-Anthony Towns a pressure valve when teams double-team him in the post.
His funky release, which was too slow to consistently get off under NBA pressure, seemed to hamper him last season, but he is looking more shot-ready by the game. Now, he has no trouble launching every time he gets the chance and, more importantly, he is encouraged and emboldened to shoot them, which will keep his confidence soaring even when a rough patch inevitably hits.
It’s unrealistic to expect him to hit half of his 3-pointers for the rest of the season, but if he can keep from dropping off a cliff completely he is going to stick in the rotation and excel as a do-it-all role player — something the Wolves desperately need as they chase a playoff spot. While his shooting has been the eye-catching area of his game thus far, he has flashed an all-around game that stretches far past just a stand-and-shoot player.
His slashing ability and knowledge of when and where to cut has been a strength of his since he starred at Ohio State University and has only continued to progress as his NBA tenure has developed. Like his ability to splash open 3-pointers, his smart cuts are super advantageous to the stars that carry the Wolves.
Watch how he solves the troubling equation Towns gets himself into as he drives baseline into a Jakob Poeltl and Dejounte Murray double-team. Instead of settling for what would have been a contested straightaway triple, Bates-Diop waits for the moment Rudy Gay starts to ball watch and beelines to the rim for the easy deuce.
Again, he is the beneficiary of his basketball IQ, Towns’ passing gravity and some masterful playcalling by Ryan Saunders. Down screens from Robert Covington and Jarrett Culver are used to spring open Josh Okogie on the weak side. However, KBD uses this as the perfect chance to misdirect the defense and sharply backdoor cuts for the hoop and harm.
His gangly limbs can have him mistaken for a clumsy or lackadaisical finisher, but the 23-year-old has elite body control for someone of his size. He seems to avoid circumvent defenders like a Jedi Fighter sifting its way through the Death Star. Combine that with an above-average handle for a power forward and it’s not hard to see why he has shot 74.6 percent from within three feet over his 628 NBA minutes, per Basketball Reference.
He also uses that strange blend of size, length and smarts to make plays on the defensive end. He is not going to overwhelm anyone with strength or power, but he can get a hand on loose balls, block shots and switch effectively on to guards.
Below you’ll find the perfect example of his defensive versatility. While covering the paint for Gorgui Dieng, who is stuck on a perimeter island, he notices that Jeff Teague is slacking off and allowing his man to get an easy layup. Bates-Diop and his quick thinking puts an instant stop to that.
It’s not every day that G-League call-ups take their chance and cement themselves as a plus player on a squad that has legitimate playoff hopes. The 2018 second-rounder is bucking that trend and exciting fans in the process.
With foundational pieces in Wiggins and Towns already locked in and playing at a high level, Minnesota is desperate for role players that enhance their skill sets. As it stands, they are lacking in that area. Fortunately, Bates-Diop looks like he could begin to fill up some of that void.