By NBA rookie standards, Keita Bates-Diop will be considered old. Maybe a better word would be mature. In the best sense of the word.
The Wolves took Bates-Diop, the Ohio State star and 2018 Big Ten Player of the Year, in the second round (48th overall) of the NBA draft Thursday night. Here’s what they got: A smooth, versatile, long (6-8½), 22-year-old small forward with a strong midrange game, a decent three-point shot and the ability to defend who has learned to overcome adversity — both his and his brother’s.
Many draft analysts had Bates-Diop going much higher. Some had him as a first-round pick. Some even speculated he might land with the Wolves at No. 20.
So, frankly, did the Wolves. Tom Thibodeau, the Wolves’ president of basketball operations and coach, said the team had Bates-Diop in the mix at 20 leading up to the draft. In a draft where, according to Thibodeau, the talent was comparable from the 15th pick into the second round, Thibodeau said he was happy Bates-Diop was available at 48.
“We were very surprised he was still there,” Thibodeau said. “We liked him a lot. He did a great job when he came in with his workout, and with his interview. And [he had] a great season with Ohio State.”
Maybe Bates-Diop fell in the draft because of a stress fracture in his left leg, one that ended his third season at Ohio State after nine games and required surgery. Maybe there is a subtle strain of ageism in the league, where one-and-dones are all the rage. Some question his explosiveness, worry he might be a “tweener” in the NBA.
The Wolves, however, still perceived him as a good value for the middle of the second round. Under a new coach at Ohio State and with a surgically repaired leg, Bates-Diop took the Big Ten by storm last season, averaging 19.8 points and 8.7 rebounds per game, shooting 48 percent. He captured conference player of the year honors and was named second-team All-America by the Associated Press. In the process he emerged as an NBA prospect, working himself onto draft boards all around the league.
And Bates-Diop has all the right motivation. It was not long after his leg surgery when his brother, Kai — then a much-heralded sophomore at University High in Normal, Ill. — collapsed and stopped breathing. He was revived thanks to CPR and an on-site external defibrillator. But subsequently, it was determined Kai’s competitive career was over. Since then, Keita has played for himself and his brother.
Both his own injury and the issues facing his brother appear to have taught him a lesson. “I think it’s given me a better appreciation for not just basketball, but everything in life,” Bates-Diop told Cleveland.com. “Everybody always talks about how you’re blessed to be able to play this game. But until something happens to someone close to you where it could be taken away, you don’t fully appreciate it.”
He played with a purpose last season, scoring in double figures in 32 of 34 games. He scored 20 or more 15 times, 25 or more nine times and twice scored over 30. He had 32 vs. Michigan State and 35 vs. Illinois during the Big Ten season.
The Buckeyes, a preseason pick to finish 11th in the conference, finished second.
Bates-Diop is the first Ohio State player drafted since D’Angelo Russell — whom he once roomed with — was taken No. 2 overall by Los Angeles in 2015.
“Sometimes it just works out,” Thibodeau said. “We feel we were very fortunate.”