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The Sleeper Keeper

In the two games Desagana Diop has played for the Nets, he has looked quite good, winning praise from his coach and the guys behind the mikes. An athletic 7-footer who has a high basketball IQ, particularly on defense, Diop looks like he could be the sleeper keeper of the Nets trade with the Mavericks.

The Nets’ organization understands how valuable he is. While fans have been focused on Devin Harris, multiple draft picks and the return of Keith Van Horn, the front office knows what it picked up.

Lawrence Frank said simply, "He's played in some big games -- big games on another level. So we're going to find a way for him."

It won’t be easy in what has become a crowded front court. A number of young big men will be competing for minutes and ultimately money over the next several months. Diop is 26; Sean Williams a mere 21. There's also Josh Boone, 23; Nenad Krstic, 24; and Stromile Swift, a sprightly 28. Diop and Williams in particular will be pushing each other. They have similar skill sets. Williams is currently second in the NBA in shots blocked per 48 minutes. Diop is ninth.

But none of the others have NBA Finals experience and none have a reputation as "Duncan Stopper". It wasn’t always that way.

A couple of years ago, the only New Jersey big man he was "competing" with was the late but not so great Yinka Dare. Their reputations were not very stellar. Diop was seen in Cleveland as a "stiff", a "bust", on the same level as the Nets’ most notorious draft pick. The comparisons were just too easy to pass up. A native of Senegal, Diop is from west Africa. So was Yinka, from Nigeria. Both were described as "raw" but with an "NBA body". Both were lottery selections who declared too early for the draft, said draftniks.

Selected at #8 out of high school by the Cavs in the 2001 NBA Draft, Diop was like Yinka the quintessential raw prospect. wrote of him back then, "He's only been playing competitive basketball for a few years so he figures to get a lot better. Right now his best asset is his defense. He can hold opposing centers virtually scoreless with his smothering style of defense…Still very raw offensively". Translation: he’s a "project" with "upside". Not a good starting point.

And like Yinka, it looked like he had a long way to go…and indeed, he did. Still, Cleveland had big plans for him. Over four years, starting his rookie season, they went unfulfilled. He played in only 18 games that first season. His profile entry for 2001-02 reads like a hospital chart: "missed 15 games from Oct. 31 – Nov. 29 due to a mild sprain of the posterior cruciate ligament of his left knee, which was injured on opening night vs. Boston …was placed on the Injured List on Feb. 28 with a right plantar fascia strain and missed the last 26 games of the season due to the injury…"

He was a big goofy kid…who was getting bigger all the time. Fans ragged on him for his weight and bad conditioning. Cavs’ officials suggested his weight was one reason for his injuries.

"He's lucky just to be considered a garbage player. It is possible that he is worse than the NBA's Worst Player of All-Time, Yinka Dare?" one Cavs fan asked on a message board.

Paul Silas, his coach, was hardly impressed. He thought Diop was not willing to work hard, was immature and kept him on the bench. More importantly, he watched as Diop ballooned during his time on the Cavs bench, tipping the scales at an official, if generous, 325 pounds.

There were occasional flashes of what he could be in 2002-03, but nothing special. Silas said he was having a difficult time making Diop understand that his value as an NBA player was as a defender, not a post presence on offense.

"You could see he had good instincts for blocking shots, rebounding," Silas told the Akron Beacon Journal in 2006 when Diop was making some noise in the playoffs for the Mavs. "He wanted to score a lot, but I was on his butt to play defense and rebound the way he's doing for Avery (Johnson)."

In 2003-04, there was some hope he might have been worth the pick. Still only 23, he started to show improvement in the opening month of the season. He blocked at least one shot in the first eight games. He scored a season-high eight points and blocked a career-high five shots at Indiana on November 7, then did it again the next night, blocking five more at Washington. On November 21, he played a career-high 31 minutes versus Minnesota and Kevin Garnett. Silas was going to him down the stretch, inserting him ahead of Zydrunas Ilgauskas.

Then he tore his meniscus in early December and was out for a month. In the meantime, Cleveland traded for Tony Battie and that was that. He was used sparingly the rest of the season, having a couple of good games, grabbing a season-high 10 rebounds at Detroit on February 3 in 18 minutes, then another nine rebounds in the season finale on April 14 at New York.

Things went from bad to worse the next season. Diop went back to his customary role at the end of the bench. The team, led by Lebron James, had a flirtation with the playoffs only to be pushed away on the last day of the season by the Nets. It was a classic collapse. Everyone was fired: Silas, Jim Paxson, the GM who had drafted Diop and made a number of other mistakes. Every story about Paxson’s demise referred to his pick of Diop as one of the GM’s worse moves, a devastating loss for the franchise. In most, there were few words between Diop's name and the term "bust". And why not? In his last year in Cleveland, after four years of supposed development, Diop had played in only 39 games, averaging 1.0 points, 1.8 rebounds and 0.69 blocks in 7.8 minutes per game. And there were the visits to the trainer’s room, missing a total of 10 games. Worse, he received 33 DNP-CD’s…Did Not Play-Coach’s Decision.

Everyone expected the Cavs would give up on the Diop experiment and indeed on July 1, they did, unceremoniously dumping him at age 23, in effect authenticating his status as a draft bust.

Diop was basically at a crossroads. If he didn’t do something, his NBA career was over.
He moved to Cherry Hill in South Jersey two days after the season ended and dedicated himself to getting into shape, losing 40 pounds. He was now a more svelte, more robust 7-foot, 270 pounds. "Wings, fried food and beef - I cut all that out," Diop said at the time.

"It was a good feeling. I dedicated myself to losing weight and tried to get better as a pro," he told Nets’ scribe Matt McQueeny last week. "I think my weight was holding me down a lot. Hired a chef, hired a trainer, worked hard all summer, two a days, and I lost a lot of weight."

Why Cherry Hill, of all places?

"My agent (Leon Rose) lives there. I have stayed there since I was in high school. I would go there and work out before the draft. I’ve always loved that area; I have a little apartment down there."

Rose tried to market him. He attracted interest from only three teams, the Nets, Knicks and Mavs. In the aftermath of the Shareef Abdur-Rahim debacle, the Nets needed big men, but after committing so much money on another Cavalier free agent, Jeff McInnis, they couldn’t compete.

The Mavs took a chance, signing him to his current, three-year, $7-million deal. Mavs scouting director, Amadou Gallo Fall, another Senegalese native, knew Diop and pressed Donnie Nelson and Mark Cuban to sign him. Avery Johnson, hungry for some defensive improvement, saw the same thing that Silas had, but with better focus.

There were doubters. "He's 23 and hasn't done a lick in the NBA," wrote Art Garcia in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "He appears to have the physical tools to be a competent backup to Erick Dampier, but is he ready to put it all together? Still, can he be any worse than Shawn Bradley?" Hardly an endorsement.

But people’s faith was rewarded. By day 5 of training camp, Johnson was raving about his new addition. "We really like having that big-time shot-blocker coming off the bench," Johnson said at the time. "He doesn't do anything else but block shots and rebound. But he's got so much energy."

Losing 40 pounds will do that for you.

"It was night and day. You’re happy you’re playing. It’s a big difference from when you sit on the bench and don’t play to as opposed to getting out there and making a big difference," he told McQueeny.

Signed as a back-up to the highly paid Erick Dampier, Diop became more than that. From 39 games in 2004-05 for a team out of the playoffs, he went to 81 games with 45 starts for the Western Conference champions. In 18.6 minutes per game, he averaged 2.3 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.80 blocks and shot a respectable 48.7% (75-154 FGs) from the floor if only 54.2% (39-72 FTs) from the line.

In spite of limited minutes, he ranked 14th in the league in blocks per game and fourth in blocks per 48 minutes played (4.64), blocking three or more shots 24 times, four or more 11 times. His rebounding went up as well as he was able to move more quickly, more laterally with a career-high 16 rebounds (6 offensive) and a career-high tying 6 blocks in 37 minutes vs. Denver on November 5. And to top it all off, he hit his first career 3-pointer, which extended the Mavericks’ streak of consecutive games with at least one 3-pointer to 610 games.

His big break came on January 11. The team was 26-10 and in the doldrums, having just lost to the Knicks. Johnson was unhappy with Dampier and inserted Diop.

"I'm a winner," Diop said at the time. "I'll do whatever the coaches want me to do to help the team win. If they want me to start, I'll be happy to start. That's my dream. Who doesn't want to start in this league?"

The Mavs won their next 13.

Duncan and DiopBut his greatest achievement came in overtime of Game 7 of the conference semi-finals, when he stopped Tim Duncan cold. Duncan led all scorers with 41 points, but he shot 1-for-7 in overtime with Diop pushing and harassing him. With 23 seconds left in overtime, Duncan tipped the ball three times, trying to save it, but as the New York Times reported, "Dallas center DeSagana Diop rose higher to grab it. Fouled on the way down, Diop made one of two free throws, giving the Mavericks a 115-110 lead." And he did it with what everyone thought was a broken nose.

"He came up big for us," Darrell Armstrong, his teammate then and now, said. "He knows how important he is to our team. He and [Erick] Dampier do our dirty work."

Tony Parker remembered last week when he heard about the trade.

"To be honest with you, I’m really happy for that trade," said Parker with a devilish smile. "Diop was doing a good job on us. And Devin Harris, most of the time, he played good against us. So I thought it would be good for us. No disrespect to Jason Kidd, he’s a great point guard, but those guys that left always gave us trouble."

The Finals were a disappointment, but a lot of the Mavs’ success came because Diop was able to handle Shaquille O’Neal better than most thought. Last year was a disappointment as well, as the Mavs finished with 67 wins, fourth highest in league history with three winning streaks of 10 or more games, then collapsed in the first round. Diop didn’t have a dramatic role but continued his steady defensive work, improving on his rebounding a bit, as he did this season in Dallas.

He is very proud of those accomplishments.

"And I was able to contribute to a team in Dallas that went to the Finals. Last year, even though we lost in the first round, we won 67 games…With the Nets, I’m going to just try to do the same thing."

And while Harris, the young point guard—who is only a year and half younger than Diop—has gotten the most attention, people in the Nets’ organization know what they got…and are quietly very happy about it. After all, how many times do you get to pick up a 7-footer with experience as a starter for a team that went to the NBA Finals?

Dave D’Alessandro of the Star-Ledger has written that the Nets see Diop as "a keeper", noting in his report Saturday that Diop was a "huge presence" vs. the Pacers Friday. Diop showed his considerable skills in one memorable stretch, D’Alessandro wrote, by "twice blocking Mike Dunleavy, altering two other shots and grabbing a deflection by Armstrong".

Fred Kerber of the Post wrote simply, "he could be a new inside force".

Of course, if the Nets want to keep him, they will have to re-sign him come summer. Duncan-stoppers don’t come cheap, after all. He is likely to command a lot more than the $2.7 million is making this season, the end of his bargain basement three year deal. The Nets will have the money now that Kidd is gone. They could even be under the salary cap. Such is the beauty of dumping a $21 million contract.

Diop admits he was "a little shocked" at the trade because he saw himself as a "a really big part of the team. But they made the move and I’m glad to be here now and hope to contribute to help this team win games."

He goes up against Duncan next Saturday, 7:30, at the IZOD Center. Should be fun.