Keita Bates-Diop is a jazz nightclub, so smooth and easy you swear he might melt into the mahogany walls as the bass lays down a cool beat.
The chill is contagious. Spend only a few minutes with the 6-foot-9 gentle soul and it is like relaxing an hour in a massage chair. The smooth voice. The sleepy eyes.
Zzzz. I need caffeine. Some thought Bates-Diop did, too, when he played three full seasons at Ohio State before declaring early for the 2018 NBA draft, where the Minnesota Timberwolves selected him in the second round with the 48th overall pick.
Physically, the long and lean Bates-Diop looked the part of an NBA player. But where was the motor? KBD drew criticism for a perceived lack of drive, especially his first two seasons. After missing most of 2016-17 with a stress fracture in his left leg, Bates-Diop received a medical redshirt and returned last season, when he led the Big Ten in scoring with 19.8 points per game.
Fluidity can be a fooler. What appeared to some as lack of effort instead was lack of friction. Bates-Diop moves effortlessly, playing the game at a comfort level approaching sleep. Part gifted athleticism, part personality, he takes the game as it comes.
The phlegmatic temperament may not appease screaming fans who expect athletes to grunt and grimace, but it works in the NBA, where an 82-game season puts a premium on playing smart and sensible.
“It definitely helps to remain calm,” Bates-Diop said last week after the Timberwolves played at Indiana. “It’s a mental thing, because the season is so long.”
Bates-Diop is averaging 2.5 points and 1.9 rebounds in 9.3 minutes, but is seeing more playing time the past week, in part because injuries have thinned the roster.
“Keita has been a guy who defends and is smart and is getting better in terms of cutting without the ball and knowing how to help on offense,” Timberwolves interim coach Ryan Saunders said. “We have confidence in Keita because of how he’s prepared and how he works. He is very effective and efficient in practice. We know we can throw him out there (in games) and he can give us positive minutes.”
Bates-Diop, who played a season-high 26 minutes against Washington on Sunday, maintains a mellow — what else? — outlook about his rookie season.
“It’s a pretty simple game I have right now,” he said, smiling, adding that adjusting to a more-limited role has not been difficult.
The bigger issue has been acclimating to the longer season.
“There is no way to prepare for it,” he said. “You play preseason and by the second month of the regular season you’ve finished a whole college season,” he said. “I got to the 32nd game and thought, ‘I’ve got 50 more.’ The biggest thing is taking care of your body. Eat right. Sleep as much as possible. Not having schoolwork helps.”
Bates-Diop looked around the locker room and pointed out several veteran players, including Luol Deng (14 seasons), who are helping him stick to healthy training and lifestyle regimens.
“It’s still basketball,” he said. “But we have so many back-to-back games, and you might get back at two or three in the morning, which did not happen a lot in college.”
Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann thinks Bates-Diop can have a long and solid career.
“I don’t know exactly what that looks like, but there is a place for him,” Holtmann said.
Hard to disagree. Watching KBD smoothly run the floor, and hearing him talk intelligently about keeping his mind and body in shape, the former OSU star is built for the long haul.