He was easy to overlook in the class of 2014.
Facing pressure to once again bring in blue-chip recruits to compete on a national scale, Thad Matta's last successful haul of recruits was headlined by the signings of D'Angelo Russell, a star point guard from Louisville with offers from all the blue-blood programs, and Ohio's best player, Ja'Sean Tate, a five-star small forward from just outside Columbus whose father had donned the scarlet and gray back in the 1990s. As Russell makes his way through his third season and Tate finishes up his final year on campus, though, it's the play of a third recruit from that class that is making waves throughout the Big Ten.
Nestled between Peoria and Champaign off I-74, roughly two-and-a-half hours south of Chicago sits the small town of Normal, Illinois, known primarily as the home of Illinois State University and as a settling ground for many of the thousands of State Farm Insurance employees that work at the company's headquarters in nearby Bloomington. Bates-Diop won three straight Corn-Belt Conference championships while at University School there, earning first-team all-state honors each time and eventually making his way to the upper echelon of his state's recruiting lists.
But despite earning five-star status from ESPN and offers from in-state programs like DePaul, the University of Illinois, and Northwestern along with a number of other Big Ten schools such as Indiana, Purdue, and Michigan, the 6'7" forward was overlooked nationally when compared to other top players from the Land of Lincoln. Bigger names like Jahlil Okafor, Cliff Alexander, and Tyler Ulis would all earn more attention due to their location in and around Chicago, eventually choosing to play at Duke, Kansas, and Kentucky respectively.
Once he arrived in Columbus, Bates-Diop showed some of his blue-chip credentials right away, shooting 46% from three in just under 10 minutes-per-game as a freshman. After Russell's departure following that season, however, things didn't go as planned over the next two years for anyone within the program, Bates-Diop included.
Last winter, a stress fracture in his left leg limited him to only nine games and earned him a redshirt season. But as Chris Holtmann took over the struggling program this fall, one of the few bright spots was the prospect of getting another two full years out of the lanky wing who by this point had added enough muscle to play either forward spot without losing any quickness.
19 games into the 2017/18 season, it doesn't appear as though Holtmann should continue to plan for the fourth-year junior to suit up for a fifth in Columbus, as Bates-Diop has emerged as a star in his new coach's system and has helped lead Ohio State to a 15-4 record with a 6-0 start in conference play. As Buckeye fans are aware, Bates-Diop and company aren't just beating teams, they're dominating them, outscoring opponents by an average of over 17 points-per-game in Big Ten play.
Anyone that's watched this team play can see that they've found their identity and rhythm offensively, with an offensive rating of 112.8 (good for 44th out of 351 Division-1 programs nationally) which is markedly improved from last season's mark of 105.6 (142nd nationally). Much of this improvement can be attributed to the back-to-the-basket post games of Tate and freshman center Kaleb Wesson, as well as the deadly outside shooting of starting guards Kam Williams and C.J. Jackson, both of whom have improved their three-point-shooting percentages by more than 10 points this winter and are hitting over 42% from deep.
But the key that unlocks all of their games is Bates-Diop, who, with a systematic shooting motion that looks the same way every time, creates spacing for his teammates. To get him going early in games, Holtmann likes to isolate the forward on the wing, allowing him to face-up and get good mid-range looks at the basket.
Though his long wing-span and high release make his jumper very difficult to defend, opponents are forced to give him space as they're scared he'll use his size and athleticism to slide right past and attack the rim with an even higher-percentage shot.
Though he doesn't do it quite as often as you might expect from someone with his skillset, Bates-Diop knows how to get to the rack and teammates seem happy to set him up with simple give-and-go action...
...or to find him feigning a screen and slipping to the rim.
While the improvement in the team's effort and chemistry seem to be the biggest factors in the Buckeyes' quick turnaround under Holtmann, the introduction of high ball-screens has certainly helped from a scheme perspective. Since Russell's departure, OSU has lacked a play-making guard capable of reading the action in front of them and making the proper decision of where to go with the ball, while also lacking an equal threat to pull the defense away from the dribbler.
While Jackson has improved greatly at the point guard spot, capable of finishing at the rim on his own, he's also proven to be an effective distributor that's built a strong chemistry with Bates-Diop in the pick-and-pop game.
Plays like these are a big reason the Normal native leads the Big Ten in scoring at 20.3 points-per-game. Despite taking a team-high 5.3 three-point attempts each game, Bates-Diop has hit 41% of them, showing an all-around offensive game that has really only been stopped once this season.
In the Thanksgiving day loss to Gonzaga, the now 15th-ranked Bulldogs threw a trio of long forwards at Bates-Diop, all of whom were 6'8" or taller and able to hold him to season-lows of seven points and only seven attempts. Michigan State is the only other team on the Buckeyes' schedule with similar length on the wings, but the Buckeyes were prepared for the Spartans' expected focus on their star player, cooking up ways to use that attention to open up other players.
While Bates-Diop may be the most NBA-ready wing to come from Ohio State Evan Turner, his game is far different than the 2010 national player-of-the-year. Turner is effectively a bigger version of Russell, a guard who needs the ball in his hands to create shots but also likes to beat up smaller opponents with his 6'7" frame.
While Turner has found some success in the league throughout his four different stops, Bates-Diop's game is far more suited to the present style of NBA wings. While maybe not as quick laterally, his game is reminiscent of Houston Rockets forward Trevor Ariza: a 3-and-D wing with long arms and the ability to knock down three-pointers off catch-and-shoot opportunities created by ball-dominant point guards.
NBA teams are constantly on the lookout for such players, the kind that can fill up the stat-sheet without needing the ball all the time and are the perfect complement to generational stars like LeBron James or James Harden. Now listed at 230 lbs, Bates-Diop should have the size to slide between either forward spot in the current pro game and still find ways to score, just as he does for the Buckeyes.
But while there will be plenty of time to analyze how his game translates to the next level between April and June, Buckeye fans should be sure to enjoy his talents from now until March. Players like him don't come around (or stick around) very often.