This wasn’t how it was supposed to turn out for DeSagana Diop, 12 years on. The preps-to-pros 7-footer was supposed to be the latest in a line of NBA success stories, youngsters hitting the ground running after joining the NBA straight out of high school. That phase somehow hit its peak and nadir during the 2001 NBA draft, when a series of bigs were taken from American high schools. All were massive disappointments with the exception of Tyson Chandler, who still needed about a decade to find his groove.
DeSagana was not one of those exceptions, despite a wild introductory press conference given that summer. From Bob Finnan at the News Herald & Morning Journal:
The Cavaliers’ news conference to introduce center DeSagana Diop to the Cleveland media in June 2001 was one for the ages.
Then-coach John Lucas went around the room giving people high-fives for their steal in the draft at No. 8 overall.
Lucas boldly predicted the 7-foot, 300-pounder would be an All-Star in two years.
Once the microphone made its way to the Oak Hill Academy product, the bravado continued. Diop said he couldn’t wait to dunk on Shaquille O’Neal, then the best center in the league.
It was quite a scene.
Even selecting eighth overall, some NBA teams in that era thought they were striking gold just because of the high school hype. And because Diop was coming out of the famed Oak Hill Academy, the Cavs thought they were getting a franchise stud.
On top of that, John Lucas is somewhat of an excitable sort. Another execrable excitable sort is Skip Bayless, who penned as much about DeSagana in the Chicago Tribune as the Bulls readied their lottery pick:
Two or three years from now you'll look back and think: How could Jordan have not taken Diop No. 1? Diop is the one athletic freak in this draft. Diop is the only man alive age 18 or above with the potential to be better than Shaquille O'Neal. Diop will soon make Thornwood's Eddy Curry look like just another overhyped Chicago-area high school phenom.
Krause could even buy some time for himself by buying into Diop. I know Krause has seen him because I was there the night he did, at the KMOX Shootout in St. Louis. Playing for basketball factory Oak Hill Academy, the 7-foot, 310-pound Diop stole the show with his shot-swatting, jump-hooking, rebounding, free-throw shooting and court-running. Here was a physically mature man-child with the feet, touch and timing of a young Hakeem Olajuwon. All Diop needs is time.
(As someone who was around and covering the draft at the time, trust me, Bayless’ thoughts were not typical of the era. He was that bad even back then.)
DeSagana is back in Cleveland, attempting to come back from a series of injuries and a frustrating NBA career that has seen the big man do little to add to what was already a rough offensive arsenal coming out of high school. The big man has only been offered a make-good contract, but nothing is assured, and the veteran’s minimum he’d be due to make ($1.4 million, the same number that is helping currently keep Jason Collins out of the NBA) might be too rich for Cleveland’s blood. Even if Andrew Bynum is continuing to waffle, and Anderson Varejao hasn’t played an NBA game since mid-December of last year.
Diop’s is not a cautionary tale, he didn’t flame out, and managed to sustain a sound enough NBA career along the way – even starting half the season for a very good Dallas Mavericks team in 2005-06. His career is a testament to the need for a backup 7-foot presence – Diop has played over 600 NBA games and counting despite a single digit Player Efficiency Rating and career 42 percent shooting mark from the floor – and the wackiness that was the NBA’s preps-to-pros era.
Hopefully, DeSagana Diop can stick with the Cavaliers. Somewhere, John Lucas will be high-fiving, if he makes the cut.
(Actually, John will probably be high-fiving no matter what happens that day. He’s a bit of a serial optimist.)