Ohio State's Keita Bates-Diop impressing Gregg Popovich, Spurs with steady growth
CLEVELAND – Keita Bates-Diop has been everything but an overnight success story.
A prized recruit out of high school, Bates-Diop signed with Ohio State in 2014 as a four-star prospect ranked No. 29 in the 247Sports.com composite database. In a class that featured three future NBA players, it took Bates-Diop longer than D’Angelo Russell and Jae’Sean Tate to start producing consistent, high-level performances for the Buckeyes. But when it came together, in his fourth year in the program and on the heels of a medical redshirt season, it did so in a big way.
The 2018 Big Ten player of the year played his way into that year’s NBA draft. That, too, would be a process. Taken in the second round by Minnesota, he played a season and a half with the Timberwolves, was traded to Denver, waived the following fall and eventually made his way to San Antonio.
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Now in his third season with the Spurs, Bates-Diop is seeing the most significant playing time of his pro career. It’s been a process, but it’s finally paying off for the 27-year-old NBA veteran.
'It's a long process': Keita Bates-Diop finding a place with the Spurs
“It’s a long process for most of us,” he told The Dispatch, sitting on a luggage cart roughly an hour before starting and scoring 14 points in a 117-109 loss to the Cavaliers on Feb. 13. “We have to find our way, find our lane, find what we do best. I had the opportunity to grow here, which a lot of guys have had the opportunity to do. I’ve found what makes me go, the spots I need to get to on offense and defense and the little things like that that keep me going.”
Adapting hasn’t just been about improving his physical skills or shape. Coach Gregg Popovich, who has been coaching the Spurs as long as Bates-Diop has been alive, said the former Buckeye has had to learn what it takes to compete at the pro level.
It requires a certain mindset.
“It’s a matter of becoming a little nastier, a little more aggressive, understanding that people would like to take his job away and he’s trying to carve out an NBA career,” Popovich said. “We’ve approached him in that tone, so since he’s come he’s made significant progress in understanding how you have to be to stay in the NBA and what it takes to be a performer. That’s really been the area he had to work in is that aggressive, physical part.”
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That’s admittedly been a bit of a learning curve for Bates-Diop, who said he took in a lot from the veterans he played with during his rookie season at Minnesota as well as his playoff experience with Denver in 2019-20 as teammates with Nikola Jokić. But after growing his scoring from 5 points to 6.8 in his second season, year one at San Antonio saw Bates-Diop’s minutes and production decline. In 30 games, he averaged 8.2 minutes, 2.6 points and 1.6 rebounds – all career lows.
Keita Bates-Diop having season in last year of contract
Since then, it’s been a steady climb in all three categories. Bates-Diop had started 24 games this season, more than he had posted (17) in his first four seasons combined. He is averaging 8.2 points, 3.4 rebounds and 20.3 minutes per game.
Rookie and fellow Ohio State product Malaki Branham called Bates-Diop "like my big brother" as he's adapted to the NBA.
“The guys who get it at the first chance or whatever you want to call it, that’s very, very rare,” Bates-Diop said. “I’m middle age on this team, but in general I’m still relatively young in the league. I came in at 22, so I’m in my fifth year and I’m still young. The things I’ve shown here, my growth is stuff I’ve gotten better each and every year, which is hard to do.”
It's also come in the final year of the two-year contract Bates-Diop signed prior to the 2020-21 season. San Antonio has lost 15 straight games and is just a half-game ahead of Houston in the Western Conference basement after entering the year with the third-youngest roster in the NBA.
Decisions will have to be made about the future as Popovich sorts through the youth. That includes Bates-Diop who, in addition to his mentality, has shown the coach growth in his confidence.
“(He’s) believing that he belongs,” Popovich said. “I think we’ve gotten that through to him and he’s done a really good job for us this year. He’s progressing very well.”