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Versatile forward Keita Bates-Diop could unlock Washington’s best lineups

John Wall wants athletic big men, but the Wizards’ biggest room for growth may lie on the wing.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Ohio State
Clear eyes, long arms, can’t lose.
Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Most conversations about the NBA Draft can be boiled down to a singular issue: Do you believe in the potential, or do you trust the production?

Teams at the top of the draft have gaping holes in their foundations, making it all the more tempting to take home run swings at prospects who may not have produced much but show tantalizing flashes of potential.

Like any discussion, the most boring and most correct answer is that the truest path lies somewhere in the middle. Balancing the value of production with the allure of potential (and more than a pinch of luck) is how the best organizations stay at the top year-after-year (see: Spurs, San Antonio).

But for a team like the Wizards, which ended up with the best non-lottery selection despite entering the 2017 season with conference finals aspirations, perhaps the scale should tip more toward those who’ve already proven what they can do. Perhaps the scale should tip more toward those who are most likely to fill in the cracks, if not rebuild the foundation.

Perhaps the scale should tip more toward Keita Bates-Diop.

Production ahead of the class

The reigning Big Ten Player of the Year can do a little bit of everything. Among his wing peers in the 15-to-30 range of this year’s draft — Troy Brown, Dante DiVincenzo, Zhaire Smith, to name a diverse few from the crowded field — Bates-Diop was the best college player.

The 6-8 junior averaged 20 points and 9 rebounds per game this season, propelling an otherwise moribund Buckeye squad to a top-tier Big Ten finish. He demonstrated a diverse scoring profile, filling it up from all three levels.

He frequently initiated the Buckeye offense with his adept post game, squaring up smaller players for quick midrange jumpers or easy kick-outs. Though not the quickest player off the dribble, Bates-Diop got to the rim just fine against less-than-elite defenders. He hit shots like a decent wing (36 percent from three, 79 percent from the line) and rebounded like a stretchy big man (9.5 rebounds per 40 minutes, equal to Michigan State’s Jaren Jackson Jr.).

He contributed to winning on both ends of the floor and never shrunk from the moment in big games, such as when he dropped 32 points on top-ranked Michigan State (featuring Jackson Jr. and Miles Bridges). In this game alone, Bates-Diop shows off his dribble pull-up, mid-post vision and scoring, spot-up three-pointer, rim-running in transition, assertive cutting, trailer playmaking and more:

His ceiling is lower than some of his younger draftmates, but he projects as a solid NBA player from early on in his career. There’s a reason he rated beneath only the draft’s most elite prospects in Kevin Broom’s YODA rankings.

His NBA-level skills are quite evident already, and it seems like he could develop further once he enters the league through dedicated strength and conditioning work.

An ideal fit with the Wizards

Put simply, Washington is one of the best potential destinations for Keita Bates-Diop because the team’s roster is built to emphasize his strengths and disguise his flaws. The team may recognize this already, as he was the clear target of a six-man workout group last Thursday.

The Wizards’ most intriguing and modern line-ups over the past several years have consistently included some combination of John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter and a similarly sized player manning the wing.

With Kelly Oubre playing as the “similar wing” there, the Wizards still lacked for shooting and secondary creation at times. With Mike Scott as the four, the defense was too inconsistent, despite the uptick in offensive production. They’ve also noticeably missed size on the wing ever since Trevor Ariza left for greener pastures.

Bates-Diop is not the kind of lockdown wing defender that Washington sorely needs, but he’s a better two-way player than Scott and his tertiary shot creation can free up Porter to be more of a spacing threat. He also projects as a better rebounder than those two were, helping the Wizards to secure boards even when Markieff Morris is at center.

The Wizards have gone small in key situations throughout the last several years, and Bates-Diop offers them a unique opportunity to do so without sacrificing much size, shooting, defense or rebounding. As a stretch four, he also represents a position of little depth on the Wizards’ roster: Mike Scott had a great 2017, but he may cost too much to retain at power forward next season.

There are plenty of players in this draft who excel at a few things that could propel them to stardom, but only if it all breaks right. At this point, the Wizards could benefit from a player who can do a little bit of everything. Consider how useful a player like Thad Young would be for these Wizards — that sort of player seems within Bates-Diop’s 7-3 reach.

Moving down opens up more possibilities

The Wizards are reportedly open to moving down in the draft to secure salary cap relief and/or additional picks.

With Bates-Diop projected to be picked somewhere in the twenties, Washington could potentially capitalize on an opportunity to shed a contract and still get a great fit for their roster.

Indiana, for example, has the 23rd overall pick in the first round and enough space to take on Jason Smith or Jodie Meeks’ contracts. Atlanta is in a similar position. They hold the 19th overall pick and a couple of picks in the thirties — they could be a candidate to move up if a particularly desirable prospect who doesn’t fit Washington’s needs is still available at 15.

Some genuinely intriguing options are out there to be pursued, especially as the younger and more athletic wings around Bates-Diop rise due to workout performances.

Yes, the Wizards will most likely follow the status quo this year and select Texas A&M center Robert Williams with the 15th pick. But with the ongoing marginalization of the center position in today’s NBA, and the glut of such players available by other methods, should a non-shooting big really be the drafting priority for a team whose stars perform best when playing small?

Mo Wagner played Williams off the floor in the NCAA Tournament this year— why not pursue him or a back-up guard in the second round and nab Bates-Diop in the mid-to-late first round, all while dumping a salary in the process?

Lilting around the draft like that is much easier said than done, but Ernie Grunfeld has been willing and able to trade both in and out of picks in the past. Finding a way to bring in Bates-Diop could bring the Wizards more flexibility both on the court and on the payroll, and he could help as a rookie next season.

Tantalizing upside has its merits, there’s no doubt. But Keita Bates-Diop is a virtual sure thing at a position of need — an essential asset to a roster that might not survive another player who can’t stay on the floor when it matters.