Over the past two games, both victories, Timberwolves fans got their first extended look at Keita Bates-Diop — someone who may not have been on the casual fan’s radar before the last week.
They saw a player whom interim coach Ryan Saunders has described multiple times as “cerebral,” someone who didn’t look out of place guarding Wizards All-Star guard Bradley Beal late in a close game, and someone who fit seamlessly in the offense as he scored 18 points in 35 minutes against the Knicks on Sunday.
But to trace his emergence as an NBA player, it’s helpful to go back to the first time the Wolves played the Knicks on Feb. 22, to the left corner at Madison Square Garden when an open Bates-Diop buried a three-pointer during the fourth quarter to extend a Wolves lead. Bates-Diop had scored in the NBA previously, but those baskets were in mop-up duty. This was his first basket that mattered. It was the only basket he had that night, but for Bates-Diop that basket was huge, and he had a wide smile when reminded about it recently. To him, it was the culmination of a chance he was awaiting.
“I knew it was coming at some point, I just didn’t know when,” Bates-Diop said. “I just had to stay ready the entire time. … That’s just how the NBA is. You’re going to get thrown out there at some point.”
He is making the most of his opportunity. The Wolves have had multiple wing players injured — Robert Covington, Luol Deng and Andrew Wiggins. This opened the door for Bates-Diop to play major minutes for the first time in his NBA career. The 6-9 Big Ten Player of the Year from Ohio State has showcased why the Wolves wanted to choose him with the 48th overall pick in last year’s draft. His length allows him to guard multiple positions, and his intelligence on the floor has been evident.
“A lot of times when you talk about somebody being cerebral, they can find ways to impact the game without scoring,” Saunders said. “They can find ways to score without having the ball in a lot of situations. You see that with Keita. He’s good reading defenders and knowing when to cut, and defensively he’s been better than I think a lot of people expected where he’s been able to guard multiple positions.”
Offensively, Saunders said Bates-Diop is a “low-usage” player, meaning he doesn’t take a lot of shots nor does he commit a lot of turnovers. That fits the mold of where the small forward position is for a lot of teams.
“There’s a lot of really good teams who do have low-usage guys in that role that are active cutters, good defenders, they can make an open three,” Saunders said. “Seeing him start to fill that kind of role for us, I think, is something to be excited for.”
Added Bates-Diop: “Moving without the ball, making my defender move. That’s a lot of my game.”
Saunders and Bates-Diop developed a bond when Saunders was still an assistant and he was one of the players under Saunders’ purview. Bates-Diop didn’t just emerge off the bench. He needed some seasoning, and he got that in the G-League at Iowa, averaging 17.7 points in 16 games there. After his last stint there, guard Derrick Rose said the team noticed a change in him.
“He was a different player …” Rose said. “In practice you can tell that he’s more comfortable being on the floor and playing with a lot more confidence. … He’s learning and progressing the right direction.”
With the Wolves likely to miss the playoffs, perhaps one good thing that can come from these final games is that Bates-Diop is establishing himself as a consistent part of the rotation.