Keita Bates-Diop ended his rookie season on a high note, a regular part of the Timberwolves rotation, getting about 20 minutes and scoring about 6½ points a game down the stretch last season.
So this season, when he found himself in the G League when the 2019-20 season started, he was understandably …
OK with it?
“I just went in with the mind-set to stay positive,” Bates-Diop said.
To be fair, Bates-Diop had struggled with back spasms in the preseason and hadn’t played much. So it was good, he said, to go somewhere early where he’d get reps and playing time. Hard? Yes.
“But that’s a part of the process,” he said. “Things don’t always go your way. I went into it with a good attitude.”
This says a lot about Bates-Diop, and it also says about the culture being developed under President of Basketball Operations Gersson Rosas and coach Ryan Saunders.
Bates-Diop was recalled in mid-November. More recently, with Jake Layman out because of a sprained toe, Bates-Diop has gotten an opportunity.
And he delivered.
In the past three games — the last two Wolves victories — the reserve wing has averaged 29 minutes, 17.0 points and 4.3 rebounds. He has shot 57.1% overall and is 9-for-20 on three-pointers. He has defended well, moved well without the ball, attacked the rim. He has also shown a knack for drifting to the corner for a three-pointer when a teammate attacks the paint.
In his case, patience was a virtue.
Bates-Diop said he studied Layman this season, seeing how he moved without the ball. Last year, it turns out, Bates-Diop became something of a protégé of veteran Luol Deng. They still communicate regularly.
“I picked up a lot,” Bates-Diop said. “A little more than you guys think. I watched him a lot when I was growing up. He was in Chicago, I grew in Illinois, so I watched him through the years. When he was here, I just picked his brain all the time. Off-the-court stuff, on-the-court stuff. How to play, how to read defenses, everything.”
“He’s been a guy who has just played within himself,” Saunders said. “When we had him in Iowa, it wasn’t for anything he was doing wrong. It’s just the fact that Jake Layman was playing well. We liked what Treveon [Graham] was giving us defensively. There wasn’t a lot of opportunity at that point. But, as the NBA season goes, there are injuries, things that happen. And Keita is making the most of his opportunity.”
In this case by helping the Wolves win their past two games. Bates-Diop isn’t alone. The Wolves have gotten some key minutes from players who have also spent time with the Iowa Wolves. Kelan Martin had 14 points on 6-for-7 shooting in a victory at Utah on Nov. 18, scoring seven points with three rebounds in the fourth quarter.
Entering Friday, the Wolves were second in the league in minutes played by players who also spent time in the G League. There have been injuries and, sadly, some family issues that have required a number of roster moves. The fact that players are able to come up and be effective so quickly shows how well-synced the Wolves and their G League team are.
“[Iowa Wolves coach] Sam Newman Beck is someone I’ve known a long time,” Saunders said. “Sam and I talk, if not every day, every other day about the guys who are there, what they’re running, what we are running. It should be reflective of us, and our defensive schemes as well. We have a coach dedicated to communication with them and their coordinators. Drillwise, filmwise, everything.”
The two teams, in terms of what they run, are almost exact mirrors of one another.
“It’s the exact same,” Bates-Diop said. “And that’s a good thing. It makes the transition when you’re called back up very easy. There were little differences last year.”