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Is it about Dieng time for the Rockets?

A case for the draft’s most boom-or-bust prospect

NBL Rd 19 - New Zealand v SEM
Could Ousmane Dieng be Rafael Stone’s next steal?
Photo by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images

Sometimes, I try to engage my girlfriend in discussions about the Houston Rockets. I almost get the impression that she’s not compulsively thinking about the team’s roster construction. When she’s in a charitable mood, she indulges me.

Yesterday, she asked me the type of question that motivates a person to get out of bed in the morning:

“How do new players enter into the league again?”.

Skip five minutes ahead. I’m at the part in the story about the Brooklyn pick. I explain that at this range in the draft, there are really two options. We could draft a player who is likely to be solid, but probably won’t be a superstar, or we could take a homerun swing. There will be guys available who could be star players, or could fizzle out of the league before the end of their rookie contract.

Basking in the profound silence of her not asking, “What’s a rookie contract?”, I gave myself to introspection. Man, I thought:

I really want the Rockets to draft Ousmane Dieng.

Could Rockets go back to international well?

For the uninitiated, Dieng has spent the majority of this season playing objectively poor basketball for the New Zealand Breakers of Australia’s National Basketball League. His overall season stats are unimpressive: 8.9 points per game on 39.8 percent shooting from the field and 27.1 percent from three-point range.

For a stretch, Dieng’s play was poor enough to jeopardize his draft stock: as in, he was at risk of slipping out of the draft altogether.

It was enough for Twitter’s suspiciously large number of unimpeachable draft experts to write the kid off. He’s “not good” was a commonly made argument. That’s the type of nuanced position that only comes with expertise. Recently, though, Dieng has made a compelling counterargument:

He is.

Check out his April 10 stat line: 22 points, 6 rebounds, and 5 assists. He shot 6-12 from the field and 4-6 from three-point range. It wasn’t an aberration. On March 27, Dieng posted 20 points (8-16 shooting) and 4 rebounds. He followed that up with 18 and 3.

Dieng has arrived, and he did so just in time for the NBA draft. Even so, the Rockets shouldn’t be targeting him based on recent performances. He should have had their interest already.

Dieng has a path to stardom

Ousmane Dieng is raw. He’s more of a concept than a tangible product at this stage. It just happens that he’s an incredibly intriguing one.

At 6’9”, Dieng is exactly the type of point-forward that tantalizes NBA front offices. He’s got a smooth handle to go with change-of-pace athleticism that makes for an uncommon skill pairing at his size.

Dieng’s finishing still needs work, but his ability to create separation from his defender with a crossover stands out here. There are not a ton of guys Dieng’s size who are executing that move so convincingly in the world. There are even fewer who aren’t NBA stars.

Still, the most enticing part of Dieng’s game may be his passing. With advanced court vision, he’s got bona fide point forward chops.

Check out the second play here. It’s not necessarily the type of highlight that would blow up NBA Twitter, but it’s an advanced read for an 18-year-old forward. Dieng is quick to recognize that the defense has loaded up on the strong side, and finds the open man in the opposite corner.

Floor vision is valuable at every position, but it’s priceless when it belongs to a 6’9” wing. Ousmane Dieng is a lump of raw clay: it’s not insane to wonder if he might be a point guard down the line. If his long-term future is as a forward, his playmaking chops will still be invaluable if he hits his ceiling.

Shooting is probably the swing skill that will determine whether that happens. Dieng’s shooting was largely inefficient for the Breakers this season, but his form is sound. He’s even shown flashes of off-the-dribble creation.

I see this play and I start getting preemptively upset that the Rockets passed up on Dieng. It’s called catastrophizing. I digress.

Dieng resets the offense here like a seasoned NBA floor general. After making his way from one corner to the next, it’s clear that nothing interesting has opened up for the Breakers. No big deal, apparently. Dieng quickly gets into his dribble move, gathers, steps back, and knocks down a fluid three.

All season, scouts were concerned about his jump shooting ability. It’s starting to look like those concerns were overblown. This cannot be overstated: Dieng is raw.

Can you think of a recent NBA prospect who struggled against inferior intentional competition only to dominate at the pro level? Were they a 6’9ish wing with some guard abilities who was sorely underdeveloped in other areas?

I’m not saying Ousmane Dieng is the next Giannis Antetokounmpo. Still, it’s worth noting that the perennial MVP candidate was averaging 9.2 points per game in the Greek A2 League when the Milwaukee Bucks selected him 15th overall.

With unlimited data at any given person’s fingertips, there comes a tendency to jump to conclusions. We see so much that we assume that we must have seen enough. We’re writing rookies off midway through the year because their projected Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) is in-line with previous draft busts’.

Wherever Ousmane Dieng is selected, he’ll probably be sandwiched between safer bets. He’s projected to land in the mid-to-late first round, which is the domain of three-and-D wings, rotation bigs, and reliable backup point guards. There’s a world in which Dieng is less valuable than any of those players.

There’s another world in which he is much, much more.

The Houston Rockets should at least consider exploring it.