The highest-rated recruiting class of Chris Holtmann’s coaching career arrived on Ohio State’s campus in June. All four members of the class of 2019 have been on campus for a few weeks, going through summer workouts and conditioning to prepare for their upcoming freshman seasons.
Before DJ Carton, Ibrahima Diallo, Alonzo Gaffney and E.J. Liddell all arrived on campus, The Dispatch caught up with each of them and their coaches for exclusive interviews to review their senior seasons and their hopes to contribute as freshmen. This four-part series will continue through the rest of the week with a new story each day both in print and at BuckeyeXtra.com. The class is ranked No. 13 nationally and tops in the Big Ten, twice as high as runner-up Michigan State at No. 26.
The series continues with Diallo, the final member to join the class.
Napa Valley (California) Prolific Prep
247Sports composite rankings: No. 34 in California, No. 63 at his position, No. 356 nationally, three stars
As a senior: Averaged 11 points, 11 rebounds and around 4 blocks in 10 games
Ohio State jersey number: 15
Transferring from one side of the United States to the other for a senior year can be tough. For Diallo, it wasn’t even the biggest move he’s made in the last 2½ years.
It was in late 2016 that Diallo left his family in Senegal and moved to the United States, moving to Bradenton (Florida) Victory Rock Prep to attend high school and pursue his basketball career. The last time he saw his parents?
“Oh, man, it’s really tough,” Diallo said. “Sometimes I just don’t want to think about it because that makes me cry.”
Asked why he moved to the United States, he said, “First of all, I love the game. And my parents let me go to pursue my dreams, and basketball is my dream. You can do it. You’ve just got to be tough.”
Then, as he approached his senior season, he made the decision to transfer to the opposite side of the country and enroll at Napa Valley (California) Prolific Prep. There, at a school that operates outside the framework of the California school system, Diallo was set to go to work without restrictions on gym time or the calendar under the eye of a coach he trusted in Billy McKnight.
“I was trying to get away from Florida,” Diallo said. “Prolific Prep in California is kind of quiet, and I needed to focus my senior year so that was the right place. As soon as I got there (I felt settled). I don’t know why. I think it was like where I just came from. Basketball is the same, so we were just working on different types of things but the same sport. I just fit right in.”
With his frame and skillset, he was quickly realized as an asset by McKnight.
“Well, I could tell right away just length-wise, physicality-wise that he was going to make a big difference for us on the inside as somebody who’s going to intimidate opposing offenses,” he said. “Then I was also very hopeful he was going to be a guy who could get us 10 points on dunks every game, just throwing him lob dunks out of the dunker spot. We could definitely see where he’s going to be a major key to our season.”
Height runs in the family, too: Diallo said his father is 6 feet 10, his mother is 6 feet and he has a grandfather who is 7 feet.
At Prolific Prep, practices for Diallo began Aug. 15. His goals were modest.
“Having a good senior year, showing some good improvement (on offense),” he said. “That was it.”
There was a lot of ground to cover. Although obviously blessed physically, Diallo brought a game in need of polish, particularly on the offensive end of the court.
For McKnight, the task was to try and get the most out of him.
“Ibrahima’s a guy that, he’s going to be in a box in some regards as a rebounder/shot-blocker/screen-setter because those are things he’s best at right now, but at the same time you’ve got to make improve on other things as well,” McKnight said. “We were focusing on free throws and shooting form and some rebounding stuff with him and being able to step out beyond the free-throw line and be able to knock down jump shots and actually having him shoot some threes.”
Injuries stunted that process. First, a sprained ankle at the beginning of the season cost him a few games. Later, a broken hand cost him six weeks. Prolific Prep went 29-7, and according to McKnight, no more than two of those losses came with Diallo on the court.
“When he was on the floor, he was just a huge part of our success, you know?” the coach said. “We didn’t use him as a post-up guy. We’d throw it down to him sometimes but very rarely. For the most part, it was as a screener, rim-runner, rebounder, shot-blocker, like (6-10 center Clint) Capela with the Houston Rockets. Set screens, roll, dunk, rebound, block shots, run the floor hard. That was basically where he was at.”
McKnight said the school doesn’t have full statistics from the season, and his official Ohio State biography states that he played in only 10 games. There are stats from a big weekend in Ohio, one that helped establish Diallo on Ohio State’s radar.
While playing in the Flyin’ to the Hoop tournament in Dayton, Diallo put up 20 points and 14 rebounds in a win against Springfield, with Ohio State coaches in attendance. The next day, in a blowout win against Geneva Spire Academy — a team featuring five-star recruit Rocket Watts and LaMelo Ball — he had 10 points and five rebounds in only 14 minutes.Join the conversation at Facebook.com/BuckeyeXtra and connect with us on Twitter @BuckeyeXtra
“The first game, yeah. I played good the first game,” Diallo said. “The second game, it was not that bad. It just feels like you’re showing people you’ve been working in silence.”
While Diallo’s performance against Springfield was noteworthy, McKnight pointed to another. Matched up on the road against the nation’s top recruit in the 247Sports composite database in center James Wiseman, Diallo helped limit the Memphis signee to nine points in a win against Memphis (Tennessee) East.
“That was between Ibrahima and our other big guy, Ali (Koroma), who basically each of them played half the game and they just beat the (crap) out of James and made it tough on him and frustrated him enough to where the kid ended up fouling out and we won that game by 15,” McKnight said. “That’s what he’s going to be able to bring. He can match up with a guy like James Wiseman, and James Wiseman’s going to be the No. 1 pick after this year. That’s what he was able to do against him.”
Overall, Diallo said his senior year was “an exciting season. There were some really good games in my memory. There was a lot of excitement from the whole year. I played good. I would have liked to have a better senior year, but things happened (like injuries).”
Injuries aside, there’s a pretty good body of work on how Diallo’s game might translate to the collegiate level. But even as basketball continues to trend toward a positionless game with players spreading the court, McKnight sees a future for a player with Diallo’s size.
“I don’t think he needs to do much more other than how I’ve described him,” he said. “When you have a 7-8½ wingspan, if you just rebound, block shots and then catch and finish dunks, that’s all you’ve got to do. Set good picks, catch and finish dunks, get on the offensive glass and get some offensive rebound putbacks, but that’s really all you’ve got to do if you can be that much of a game-changer on the defensive side where you’re distracting or blocking shots and rebounding.
“He actually throws really nice outlet passes and then it’s just offensively, anything you get out of him is a bonus and that’s the way it should be. And that’s the way the whole game is going anyway at this point. It’s such a guard-oriented game, so as long as he embraces that role he can be really good.”
Diallo said he spent the time between his senior season and his arrival at Ohio State working daily on his post moves with an eye on his primary goal of continuing to develop offensively. He reported to Ohio State fully recovered from the hand injury.
“I think I’m good at defending,” he said. “I think I’m good there. I just need to improve my offense, so that’s what we’ve been working on.”
His goals for the season and his favorite things to do on the court are linked.
“Always put my team first and make my teammates get better,” he said. “I don’t care about scoring more than other guys, I just want to win. That’s it. You can put 40 or 45 (points) every game and lose that game, so that doesn’t mean a thing. The thing I need is winning, because I hate losing.”