Seizing his role, Ohio State's Keita Bates-Diop relishing postseason chance with Spurs

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
San Antonio Spurs forward Keita Bates-Diop (31) drives to the basket past Phoenix Suns forward Jalen Smith (10) during the second half of an NBA basketball game in San Antonio, Saturday, May 15, 2021.

It wasn’t until the end of his second season in the NBA, the one that was chopped up by the COVID-19 pandemic, that Keita Bates-Diop truly understood what it took to stick around.

The 2018 Big Ten player of the year, Bates-Diop was Minnesota’s second-round selection after four years at Ohio State and would sign a two-year guaranteed contract with an option for a third. He played in 30 games as a rookie and 37 the following year before being shipped to Denver as part of a massive, four-team deal.

It was there with the Nuggets that Bates-Diop, who played in seven regular-season games in 2019-20, saw what it looks like when NBA players fully accept their roles – and those lessons helped Denver reach the Western Conference finals before bowing out to eventual champions the Los Angeles Lakers.

“There were the stars, but (other guys) filled roles and were really good in those roles in the playoffs, never getting outside of themselves,” Bates-Diop told The Dispatch on Tuesday. “Guarding the best player, maybe you don’t get to shoot 10 times but your impact can be more than just scoring. I saw that with those guys and that’s when it really clicked.”

Ohio State basketball:Keita Bates-Diop having stellar season after year of setbacks, near-tragedy

It’s a lesson he took with him into the offseason and an eventual one-year, two-way contract with San Antonio. Wednesday night, he’ll suit up with the Spurs in an NBA play-in game against Memphis for the right to play another day. If Bates-Diop gets into the game, it likely won’t be as a featured player. He’s played more than 20 minutes just once this season, and it came in the penultimate game of the regular season when the Spurs lost by 37 points.

But whenever his time comes, Bates-Diop said he knows his role and he’s ready to fulfill it.

“Probably 90% of the people in the NBA is essentially role players,” he said. “How good are you in those roles? Good teams have really, really good role players who understand what their role is.”

In 104 career NBA games, Bates-Diop has averaged 5.0 points and 2.5 rebounds in 14.3 minutes per game. This season, in 30 games with the Spurs, Bates-Diop has averaged 2.6 points and 1.6 rebounds in 8.2 minutes while playing for legendary coach Gregg Popovich, who became the Spurs’ coach in 1996 – the same year Bates-Diop was born.

He signed with the Spurs after a frenzied week of free agency and was able to prove two things to Popovich: toughness, and basketball IQ.

“Everything else you can fill in and figure out,” Bates-Diop said. “I’ve had the luxury, looking back on it now, of playing for great coaches in high school, AAU, college. Now that I’m at a place where I’m using my mind to be a cerebral basketball player, it’s huge. A lot of credit to those (coaches).”

One of those former coaches, Ohio State’s Chris Holtmann, paid Bates-Diop an in-person visit for the final game of the regular season. Holtmann posted photos to social media of the Spurs game against Phoenix on May 16, after Bates-Diop tied a season high with nine points and had five rebounds in 12 minutes of playing time.

It was the first time the two had seen each other in person since prior to the pandemic.

“It was dope, man,” Bates-Diop said. “We talk now and then about their season, my season, my offseason, all that kind of stuff. It was good to catch up a little bit.”

For now, the focus is solely on the Grizzlies (with former Ohio State staff member Scoonie Penn on the sideline as an assistant coach) and a hopeful game against either Golden State or the Lakers on Friday. Whenever the season does come to an end, Bates-Diop will again be a free agent and it’ll be time to figure out what’s next.

Could a longer stay in San Antonio be in the cards?

“I hope so, but I try not to think about that as much,” he said. “I stressed myself out a little bit last year but it’s just the stuff you can’t control. It’s cliché, but control what you can control. Everyone looks at the max guys, the guys that sign the big, long-term deal and that’s like 5% of the NBA.

“The rest of us bounce around, get traded, free agency, all that kind of stuff. That’s me.”

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy