By Joe Henricksen
Keita Bates-Diop's progression as a player has been impressive. The growth the Normal U-High junior has made in the last six months has set himself apart as a prospect from everyone in the Class of 2014 not named Jahlil Okafor and Cliff Alexander.
From about May of 2011 to December of 2011 when he began to be recognized as an intriguing and talented prospect by the masses, the 6-8 forward always garnered the projection quotes: "Just wait until he figures it out." ... "When he finally reaches his ceiling, look out." ... "Wait until he physically develops." ... "He has so much upside. When will it all come together?" I remember sitting with a high-major coach in December as we took in a Bates-Diop game and the coach saying, "Yeah, well, he's not there yet."
Today, six or seven months later, he still hasn't figured it all out. He still hasn't reached his ceiling, he still isn't fully physically developed and it still hasn't all come together. But that is exactly what makes Bates-Diop such a special and exciting prospect going forward. Using a horse racing analogy, Bates-Diop is closer to being in the "backstretch" than he is the "homestretch" in his development as a player.
Bates-Diop has thoroughly progressed as a player since the Hoops Report took in a couple of his games in the State Farm Holiday Classic in December, while still maintaining the aforementioned "prospect labels" you hope a young player still possesses heading into their junior of high school. You don't want a talented prospect to be tapped out by his junior or even senior year of high school. And Bates-Diop is not even close to being maxed out as a player.
We all tend to expect so much from young prospects -- and by young we're talking freshmen and sophomores -- and are often too anxious, unwilling to wait for their progression from promising prospect to ideal player. Because their names are out there, because they are ranked nationally and have high-major offers, many expect to see that player dominate. Well, the truth is many young freshmen and sophomores aren't yet ready to dominate. But you see the potential, you see the flashes. The promising prospect to finished product happens at a different rate for different players.
In helping lead his high school team to a state runner-up finish in Class 2A last March, Bates-Diop averaged 13.6 points a game. While he didn't put up monster numbers or have a big performance in the two games in Peoria, it was another step in his development as a player. So to was his play this past spring on the AAU circuit with the Illinois Wolves, where he took yet another step in growing up as a player.
There are still moments where he shies away from being an aggressive and assertive difference-maker. And while he can score in a variety of ways, he still doesn't always do so efficiently. But it's often as if he's not quite sure or acclimated to knowing which of his many skills to assert in different situations. That will come with time, maturity and experience. The flashes of who Bates-Diop can be are becoming more consistent and more prominent.
There are the eye-popping dimensions as a 6-8 forward with a much-talked about 7-2 wing span, along with what he can do with those dimensions and his athleticism: block and contest shots, reach loose balls and keep balls alive, be an above-average defender and, as he did this last weekend at the Chicago Summer Challenge at Riverside-Brookfield, throw down a dunk over the top of a defender that puts a buzz throughout a gym.
Then Bates-Diop will drop in a 3-pointer, which is a dimension to his game that will only get better as he gains body strength. He then shows how much more comfortable he is with his pull-up, mid-range game in the halfcourt. So while he can still exploit his size and length around the basket, he's slowly but surely becoming a more effective perimeter threat with his shooting and improved ability to put the ball on the floor. Plus, his instinctive basketball abilities continue to emerge more and more.
Bates-Diop is evolving into the coveted hybrid forward with versatile, unique talents that continues to show why the traditional power forward (where have you gone, back-to-the-basket 4-man?) is becoming less important and the "combo" forward -- the combination of an athletic wing and a face-up 4 -- is so valued.
In terms of a visual for the fan, try former Louisville star Earl Clark or former Syracuse star Donte Greene as a couple of players that Bates-Diop resembles in terms of length, skill and position.
Bates-Diop isn't in need of more love. He is already a consensus top 50 prospect, checking in at No. 36 in the Rivals.com national rankings and No. 43 in both Scout.com and ESPN.com. He's been the Hoops Report's No. 3 prospect in the class, behind Young's Jahlil Okafor and Curie's Cliff Alexander, for some time. He has high-major offers from the likes of DePaul, Illinois, Kansas State, Michigan, Purdue and Northwestern -- with many more to come.
But he's also so far away from reaching his ceiling and becoming the player he can be, which is why it will be intriguing watching his development over the next 24 months. You compare Bates-Diop to other top prospects in Illinois not named Jabari, Jahlil and Big Cliff and there is just so much more that catches your eye and keeps you excited thinking of the heights he has yet to reach.
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