Pro basketball's summer showcase has come a long way in a short time.
Initially conceived as a local pro-am league in Salt Lake City high school and small college gyms as a public relations stunt to help build interest in the Utah Jazz, today the event has become the sport's epicenter for two weeks every July. Boosted by the hype surrounding top talents like Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett, tickets for Friday night's session were the hottest in Las Vegas as stars like LeBron James and Anthony Davis made their way courtside to check out the NBA's future stars firsthand.
But while the majority of attention is reserved for the top picks in the most recent draft, the NBA Summer League's true value is derived from the experience it provides young players in need of competitive minutes early in their career. After an up-and-down rookie season in Minnesota, former Ohio State forward Keita Bates-Diop is undoubtedly one such player.
The 2018 Big Ten Player of the Year fell to the 48th pick in the draft that June over concerns about his age after spending four seasons in Columbus. After a strong summer league showing last summer in which he dropped 24 points and 11 rebounds in the Timberwolves' second game, KBD struggled to get off the bench once the regular season began.
In 30 appearances, the 6'9" combo forward saw only 16.8 minutes-per-game and averaged just 5 points and 2.8 rebounds per contest. But the T-Wolves were a team in transition, trading star Jimmy Butler and firing head coach Tom Thibodeau mid-season, allowing Bates-Diop more opportunities to show the front office what he could do.
Unlike his final season at Ohio State, in which he was the primary focus in Chris Holtmann's offense, Bates-Diop stood out for his ability as a shot blocker and cutter without the ball. But although he'd shot 35.9% from three-point territory in his last collegiate campaign, he struggled to find consistency from deep as a rookie in Minneapolis, connecting on just 25% of his attempts.
Despite such inconsistency, he kept a professional approach throughout the year.
“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 March. “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 23-year old's first professional season did have some highlights, as he averaged 17.7 pts and 8.8 rebounds in 16 appearances for the G-League Iowa Wolves. In those contests, he looked like the player he'd been in Columbus, recording seven double-doubles including a 23 point, 12 rebound, and 6 assist showing against Ft. Wayne just days before getting the full-time call up to Minnesota.
While recent lottery pick Jarrett Culver has yet to officially join the team, Bates-Diop and fellow second-year player Josh Okogie were given the reins of the summer league squad in the meantime. But it wasn't Okogie, the former first-round pick, that stole the show in the Wolves' first game against the Cleveland Cavaliers last Friday.
Instead, Bates-Diop earned headlines, showing his abilities as a face-up scorer and leading all players with 17 points as his team came away with an 85-75 win. Perhaps more importantly, though, was the manner in which he did it, going 7-10 from the floor and hitting 3-5 attempts from behind the arc.
"I have great confidence in my game right now,” Bates-Diop told NBA.com following the game. “Last year, coming off pre-draft workouts and then two weeks before coming into this and then a whole NBA season, we've got a whole offseason this year already, so I'm pretty confident in my game."
Not only has Bates-Diop shown his ability to create offense on the perimeter, but he's also contributed in a number of roles for the Wolves' summer league team. Such an effort should leave a positive impact on new team president Gersson Rosas, a well-respected executive who comes by way of the Houston Rockets, that he's capable of doing more than just play on the wing.
Playing primarily at power forward against the Cavs, KBD showed an ability to perform as both the ball-handler and screener in pick-and-roll situations. While his length allowed him to be effective as a finisher diving to the rim, his ball-handling ability let him attack smaller defenders off a switch with relative ease.
“The beauty of Keita’s game is he can pretty much play every position,” T-Wolves Summer League coach Pablo Prigioni said following Friday's contest. “He can play point guard if he wants. His ability to play multiple positions gives us a lot of options . . . With him at 3, 4 to 5. It’s so valuable. He was good. He was aggressive getting to the rim. He makes shots.”
That multi-positional play continued in the Timberwolves' second Summer League game Sunday afternoon, as Bates-Diop spent a significant amount of time playing the center spot. Matched up often against former Villanova standout Omari Spellman, KBD put up 11 points and 11 rebounds while continuing to shoot well from outside, going 2-5 from deep.
Keita Bates-THREEop pic.twitter.com/7EcbYtwbhF— Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) July 7, 2019
The improved rebounding numbers while playing the 5 were a welcome sight to T-wolves head coach Ryan Saunders, who challenged the former Buckeye to improve in that area this offseason.
“His pursuit of the basketball has been very good and that’s something that we talked about," Saunders told reporters after the game. "We had an honest, I had an honest conversation with every player about something I thought they really needed to improve upon this summer as soon as the season ended. That was one of the things (for him) and that’s a credit to him for really absorbing that.”
But even though he's shown growth as an outside shooter and rebounder, there is still room for growth over the next week in Vegas. Though Spellman is also listed at 6'9", the Hawks' big man used the additional 30 lbs he has on Bates-Diop to bully his way into the paint and finish on more than one occasion.
While his face-up game should continue to cause problems for opponents as a potential stretch-5, KBD's future in the league may depend on his ability to slow down bigger players and keep them off the glass. With two more scheduled games tonight against Milwaukee (9 pm ET, ESPNU) and Wednesday night versus Miami (7 pm ET, NBA TV) before tournament play begins next weekend, Ohio State's most prominent entry in this year's Las Vegas Summer League can continue to show the brass in Minnesota, and elsewhere throughout the league, that he belongs in a regular rotation come October.