Life lessons learned
Contrary to popular opinion, there was no sit-down discussion in the offseason that lit a fire under Keita Bates-Diop.
Nobody took aside the Ohio State redshirt junior, made him realize his potential and empowered him to put together an All-America type of season.
If anyone or anything prepared Bates-Diop for the year he is enjoying, it was life itself.
A self-described quiet and shy kid who couldn’t wrap his head around being famous now has played himself into the national spotlight and elevated the Buckeyes from afterthoughts to Big Ten contenders by coming to a better understanding of who he is and what has shaped him.
Given all he has been through in the last two years, there is plenty to draw from, starting with Bates-Diop’s recovery from mononucleosis that cost him the end of his sophomore season.
“It’s a slow comeback, and then I had the whole stress fracture in my leg. So I was never fully healthy physically (last year),” he said this week. “For almost a whole year I didn’t feel like myself, not even close to 100 percent. I thought I could have a good year, a breakout-type of year, but obviously it didn’t happen my regular junior year.”
While Bates-Diop was taking a medical redshirt after undergoing surgery for a stress fracture in his left shin, his younger brother, Kai, collapsed at a high school basketball practice and had to be revived with a defibrillator.
The experience necessitated Keita undergoing testing to see if he had the same genetic heart condition — he doesn’t — and gave his family a chance to save other lives by campaigning for more widespread access to defibrillators in high schools.
So an illness, a near-death experience in his family and a season-ending injury all gave Bates-Diop the presence of mind to approach this year with specific goals. Not on the list: Play his way into the NBA.
“My first goal was, I was about to graduate in December,” he said. “Then it was stay healthy and just be yourself. It wasn’t, ‘You can do this, this and this, and then you can do this.’ It was just, ‘Be yourself and everything else will take care of itself.’ ”
Among the first to see the revamped Bates-Diop was Xavier coach Chris Mack, when the Musketeers played the Buckeyes in a late-October closed scrimmage.
“He had a great day against us,” Mack said. “They ran a lot of actions at the top of the key, put us in some mismatch situations and he had such an ability to shoot the ball. He’s playing with a lot of confidence, and I thought he played that way (against us).”
It took just a few regular-season games for those around the program to start whispering that Bates-Diop might be too improved to keep around for a fifth season.
Coach Chris Holtmann has hinted as much in his most recent news conferences. Bates-Diop is appearing in mock drafts, and one NBA scout who attended the Michigan State game last Sunday told The Dispatch that Bates-Diop needs to continue proving that he can play at his current level.
“His length is impressive,” the scout said. “The way he shot the ball was very attractive, and I think that the biggest thing for him now will be consistency throughout the season. I’m not saying be perfect. I’m just saying he’s got to be close. It can’t be extremes. It’s got to have a level of positive consistency there.”
Consistency was among the talking points in a frank preseason conversation as Holtmann and Bates-Diop were getting to know each other. In addition to essentially agreeing not to talk about the NBA, Holtmann told Bates-Diop that the book he had gathered on him told a story of a player with an inconsistent motor and effort level.
Accordingly, nobody really knew what to expect from the former top-30 national recruit from Normal, Illinois, least of all people in the media.
“I didn’t have any expectations (for Keita),” said Ron Stokes, a former team captain and current radio analyst. “I was totally uncertain because when you have a surgery like he had, and all the other issues he had to deal with in trying to maintain his health, I just didn’t know where he would be. I think a lot of so-called experts felt the same way.”
Entering a game Sunday at Rutgers as the Big Ten’s leading scorer (20.3 points per game) and third-leading rebounder (8.8), Bates-Diop is the reigning Oscar Robertson national player of the week.
After averaging 11.8 points as a sophomore, he’s now getting his points while scoring in a variety of ways. During the Michigan State game, Stokes drew a comparison between Bates-Diop and Dennis Hopson, the Buckeyes’ all-time leading scorer.
With Hopson's length and ability to knock down the midrange jumper, the former OSU star more than doubled his scoring average from his sophomore season (9.8) to his junior year (20.9).
“A lot of it is him,” Hopson said. “A lot of it is the people he’s around. A lot of it is his teammates and his coaching staff. But this kid’s a player, man. He has Scottie Pippen written all over him at the next level.”
That will be a topic for the future Bates-Diop to worry about. Although he now is taking graduate-level classes, Bates-Diop said he hasn’t approached this season as a senior year.
“At the end of the season, or close to the end of the season, I’ll start thinking and talking to more people about it,” he said. “Everyone keeps asking me about it now, so I think it’s becoming somewhat of a reality that it could happen. But I don’t talk about it with my family at all.
“Now, this semester, people are trying to ask me about it, so it’s becoming a thought in my mind. But I try not to think about it and try not to talk about it with my family or anything, just because I want to stay focused on the now and stay focused on who we play next.”