Keita Bates-Diop Gradually Emerging As a Role Player in Rookie Season with NBA's Minnesota Timberwolves

By Dan Hope on March 7, 2019 at 1:40 pm
Keita Bates-Diop
Brad Rempel – USA TODAY Sports

INDIANAPOLIS – Until the past two weeks, Keita Bates-Diop hadn’t seen much playing time in NBA games in his first season as a professional basketball player.

Of the Minnesota Timberwolves’ first 57 games of the 2018-19 season, Bates-Diop played in just six for only 34 total minutes, scoring only six points. The reigning Big Ten Player of the Year and second-round draft pick spent a portion of the year playing in the NBA G League, averaging 17.7 points and 8.8 rebounds per game in 23 games with the Iowa Wolves.

In the Timberwolves’ past eight games, however, Bates-Diop has finally started to become a regular in the rotation. He’s appeared in seven of those eight games, playing at least 10 minutes in six of them, and totaled 29 points, 17 rebounds, two assists, five blocks and two steals.

While Bates-Diop’s increase in playing time has come in part because of injuries to other players on the Timberwolves, who are just 30-35 this season and unlikely to make the playoffs, it’s also because he’s improved as the year has progressed and proven he belongs on the court more frequently.

“Sometimes, getting yourself playing time and rotational minutes can be by default. But it’s also been we have confidence in Keita because of how he’s prepared, and how he works, and also we see him in practice, and he’s been very effective and efficient,” Timberwolves coach Ryan Saunders said last week after the Timberwolves’ loss to the Indiana Pacers. “So with that, we know that when we do have to throw him out there, he can give us positive minutes.”

After a spectacular final season at Ohio State, in which he averaged 19.4 points per game and 8.8 rebounds per game to a lead the Buckeyes to a second-place finish in the Big Ten standings and a run to the NCAA Tournament, Bates-Diop has had to accept the reality of being a fringe role player this year in the NBA.

Bates-Diop knows from his career at Ohio State, though, that success doesn’t always happen right away. He played only 9.9 minutes per game and averaged only 3.8 points per game in his first season at Ohio State. After emerging as one of the Buckeyes’ top players in his sophomore year, had to take a medical redshirt in his third year at Ohio State due to a stress fracture in his leg. It wasn’t until his final season as a Buckeye that Bates-Diop blossomed into one of college basketball’s top players and an NBA prospect.

So Bates-Diop isn’t concerned yet about his limited playing time in his rookie season. He’s just trying to keep his routine consistent and work hard every day to prove that his role should continue to increase going forward.

“Earlier in my college career, I was a role player. I didn’t become a star until my last year, pretty much. So it’s not that big of an adjustment for me,” Bates-Diop told Eleven Warriors last week in Indianapolis. “I’ve been doing pretty much the same thing since the beginning of the season. Staying ready. Since I’m not playing, a lot of conditioning. Shooting before and after practice. Watching film, whether I play or not. Staying locked in, no matter what it is.”

The biggest adjustment to playing in the NBA this year, Bates-Diop said, has been acclimating to the length of the season, as NBA teams play 82 regular-season games while college basketball teams play no more than 31. That’s made it more important for Bates-Diop to stay focused, never allowing himself to stay down after a disappointing loss or a lack of playing time.

“The biggest thing is probably taking care of your body, taking it day-by-day. Not getting too high, getting too low. Trying to stay the course,” Bates-Diop said. “You got to put things on the back-burner. You got to move on quickly. It’s every other day, or maybe two games back-to-back, so the biggest thing is probably just being able to compartmentalize things, move forward.”

Bates-Diop is confident that if he continues to work hard both on and off the court, he will prove that he belongs in the NBA and his role will continue to grow, much like he was able to do by staying the course through adversity at Ohio State.

“Coming in early, staying late – all those things everyone said to you growing up, pretty much – it doesn’t change when you get here,” Bates-Diop said. “Getting extra work, watching film, talking to whether it’s the vets or the coaching staff, little things that they see or what the players see, that goes a long way.”

“You got to put things on the back-burner. You got to move on quickly. It’s every other day, or maybe two games back-to-back, so the biggest thing is probably just being able to compartmentalize things, move forward.”– Keita Bates-Diop on adjusting to life in the NBA

As a former Ohio State player, Bates-Diop has several examples he can look to of players achieving long-term success in the NBA.

D’Angelo Russell, who was a part of the same Ohio State recruiting class as Bates-Diop in 2014 and still talks to Bates-Diop regularly even though he spent just one year with the Buckeyes, didn’t play up to expectations in his first three NBA seasons but has excelled this season with the Brooklyn Nets, earning a selection to the All-Star Game. Mike Conley and Evan Turner have also achieved long-term success at the next level, with Conley currently in his 12th NBA season and Turner currently in his ninth NBA season.

Bates-Diop said he still typically hears from Chris Holtmann or another member of Ohio State’s coaching staff at least once per week, and he remains grateful to Ohio State and its fans for the support they gave and have continued to give him.

“They’ve meant a lot to me,” Bates-Diop said. “They were always there through the ups and downs.”

Without Bates-Diop, who chose to enter last year’s NBA draft after graduating from Ohio State even though he had one more year of eligibility, this year’s Buckeyes have struggled. They are currently just 8-11 in Big Ten play with one regular-season game to go, leaving them squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble.

That said, Bates-Diop’s advice to this year’s Buckeyes – especially seniors like C.J. Jackson and Joey Lane who are about to play their final home games at Ohio State – is to keep grinding and cherish every moment.

“You won’t have that same camaraderie, the same feeling you have (after you leave Ohio State),” Bates-Diop said. “It’s not the same. I’ve probably had 20 teammates since I’ve been here already. So cherish those last games.”

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