The familiar drive featured plenty of changing sights Monday afternoon for Keita Bates-Diop. Headed to Value City Arena to announce that he was forgoing his final season at Ohio State and declaring for the NBA draft with the intent to hire an agent, the Big Ten’s player of the year headed north on High Street, as he’s done countless times before.
“I was remembering all the stuff, all the memories I have from freshman year,” he said. “Half of the restaurants from my freshman year are closed now on High Street. There’s a bunch of apartments being built along High Street that weren’t here when I got here.”
It took him “super long” to get to the arena, he said, because of ongoing construction near campus. It was a fitting journey for the redshirt junior, who overcame serious injury, personal near-tragedy, a coaching change and the eventual rebirth of a struggling men’s basketball program and emerged as a projected first-round NBA draft pick.
Bates-Diop delivered the news inside the same interview room that has seen him answering questions after signature wins like Ohio State’s upset of No. 1 Michigan State this season, after his season-ending surgery to repair a stress fracture in his left shin a season ago, or even after the exhibition win against Walsh three seasons ago that led freshman teammate JaQuan Lyle to call him out for occasionally disappearing in practice.
This time he had his father, Richard Bates, on his right and his mother, Wilma Bates, on his left.
Coach Chris Holtmann was there, too, on Wilma’s left.
“I think he realized that the timing is right, given that he’s 22 and given that he’s got his degree and all of those things lined up,” Holtmann said. “I think he realized he made a significant contribution to our program in his time here, but certainly this year in both his play and his leadership.”
Coming off the injury, Bates-Diop played himself onto the NBA’s radar while averaging 19.8 points and 8.7 rebounds and leading the Buckeyes back to the NCAA Tournament. After the second-round tournament loss to Gonzaga, Bates-Diop said he took a few days to process the loss and start weighing his options. He talked with former Buckeyes including D’Angelo Russell, Evan Turner and Evan Ravenel, seeking input from the viewpoints of players with various professional backgrounds.
Bates-Diop graduated from Ohio State in December. That impacted his decision, he said, as did last year’s injury. While it wasn’t a particularly difficult decision, he said, it was clearly emotional. Bates-Diop’s voice wavered on one occasion as he discussed his teammates while fighting back tears through red eyes. The entire Ohio State coaching staff gathered in the room to watch his news conference along with several players, including Musa Jallow and Joey Lane.
“I’m going to miss the locker room, the memories I’ve made here,” Bates-Diop said. “Yeah, I’ve had ups and downs here. I’ve had a lot of teammates here, but the guys in the back, especially this past season, it’s been the best year of my basketball career just because nobody thought we could do what we did. We came together, the coaching staff, we all became a family this year.”
He has not hired an agent but is in the process of doing so. The feedback he received indicates that he’s a lock to be taken in the first round, Bates-Diop said.
“We’re just beyond proud,” his mom said. “We always knew he could do it. It’s just been a really exciting year to watch and follow him and see him do everything he set out to do.”
During his portion of the news conference, Holtmann kept the focus on Bates-Diop and deferred questions about how his departure will affect next year’s team for a later date. Still, he allowed that the loss of Bates-Diop with seniors Jae’Sean Tate, Kam Williams and Andrew Dakich will present a challenge.
Although the Buckeyes lose roughly 50 percent of their scoring, assists and rebounds, they also lose, “90-100 percent of our leadership,” Holtmann said. “There’s exciting opportunity for these (returning) guys, and will we add to our roster? Probably. How much? I don’t know.”