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Keita Bates-Diop is far from a household name, but he went into the 2023 NBA free agency period poised to earn a decent payday. The San Antonio Spurs had plenty of cap space to re-sign him, and coming off a career year, he was listed by numerous outlets — including this one — as one of the biggest “under the radar” free agents.
Instead, the Phoenix Suns signed him to a two-year contract worth the veteran minimum. The Athletic’s John Hollinger praised the move as the Suns snagged his top “sleeper” pickup of the summer, while The Dunker Spot’s Nekias Duncan felt similarly.
Last year, Bates-Diop averaged 9.7 points, 3.7 rebounds and 1.5 assists in 21.7 minutes per game while shooting 50.8 percent overall for a 22-win Spurs team. It’d be easy to dismiss his production as empty calories on a terrible team if not for the defensive end of the floor, where he quietly proved himself as a capable, versatile defender.
Out of all the free agents the Suns were able to land at bargain prices, Bates-Diop and Drew Eubanks may have been the most surprising. Coach Frank Vogel is already excited about the defensive skill-sets and toughness those newcomers will bring to the table.
“Just length and toughness, particularly with those two guys,” Vogel told PHNX Sports. “We want to make sure that we’re one of the more physical teams in the league.”
The question is, what can the Suns realistically expect from Keita Bates-Diop? What does he provide defensively, where can he pitch in offensively, and what kind of chance does he have of locking down Phoenix’s fifth starting spot? As we’ve already done with Jordan Goodwin, Bol Bol and Eric Gordon, it’s time to dive into expectations for KBD.
Standing at 6-foot-8 and sporting a gargantuan 7-foot-3 wingspan, the “D” in KBD stands for defense. Doug McDermott, who played alongside him in San Antonio for the last two seasons, dropped another buzzword that seems to keep coming up with Bates-Diop: versatile.
“Just a very versatile player,” McDermott said. “He can play a lot of different positions, he can guard a lot of different positions.”
The advanced stats don’t quite paint KBD as some elite, playmaking defender. According to The BBall Index, he only ranked in the 59th percentile in passing lane defense, 62nd percentile in pickpocket rating and 63rd percentile in deflections.
However, Dougie Buckets isn’t exaggerating about his versatility. In The BBall Index’s breakdown of how much time Bates-Diop spent defending each position and player archetype last season, it was split pretty evenly across the board:
- 13 percent of his time on point guards
- 22 percent on shooting guards
- 26.5 percent on small forwards
- 26.2 percent on power forwards
- 12.5 percent on centers
Traditional positions are obviously less in vogue these days, but the point still stands: Bates-Diop is an extremely switchable defender who uses his length, instincts and physicality to hold his own at multiple positions.
Whether it was stripping ball-handlers like Jaylen Brown and Karl-Anthony Towns, smothering iso scorers like DeMar DeRozan and Stephen Curry, or turning back Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard at the peak of their jumpers, Bates-Diop routinely showed his defensive capabilities.
Watch him in the clip below, and it’s easy to see his innate understanding of where the ball-handler wants to go. As a help defender, KBD has the right timing and quick hands to come over from the weak side and pounce at the opportune moment. On the ball, he’s using exceptional footwork, body control and length to corral his man before making a play on the ball:
Bates-Diop rarely fouls, ranking in the 96th percentile at his position, per Cleaning The Glass. Despite averaging less than one steal per game, he did place in the 78th percentile in steals per 75 possessions. And as Nekias Duncan pointed out, he’s a connective defender who fits in perfectly with the Suns’ targeted offseason traits of length, athleticism and switchability.
“Just someone that knows how to connect, can knock down some shots and defensively can guard all over the place,” Duncan told PHNX Sports. “And if Phoenix is gonna lean more into switching, which is what I think based on the personnel that they have and what they’ve added so far, I think they’re gonna lean more into the switching than they did last year, I think it just works.”
The obvious question is whether Bates-Diop can put that all-encompassing length to good use as the point-of-attack defender Phoenix’s starting lineup needs. Devin Booker is a far better defender than people realize at this point, and Bradley Beal should be reinvigorated on that end now that he’s playing for a contender and a defensive-minded coach like Vogel, but tasking either of them with guarding the Ja Morants and Steph Currys of the world seems perilous.
The answer to that question still feels like an unknown quantity for Bates-Diop. Although his time was split fairly evenly across all five positions, at the end of the day, he only spent 13 percent of his time on point guards last year, including just 7.5 percent of his time on primary ball-handlers.
While he did spend 16.5 percent of his time defending shot creators, the majority of his time was guarding stationary shooters (22.5 percent).
There are signs he can hold his own against shifty point guards on the perimeter. KBD ranked in the 86th percentile in ball-screen navigation, and he routinely hounded movement players all over the court, ranking in the 88th percentile in off-ball chaser defense.
But on a team that already houses elite point-of-attack defenders like Josh Okogie and Jordan Goodwin, Bates-Diop will have his work cut out for him in proving he’s ready to guard opposing teams’ best ball-handlers and floor generals on a nightly basis.
Looking at the film and The BBall Index’s “on-ball perimeter defense” metric, Okogie (99th percentile) and Goodwin (92nd percentile) seem suited for that specific task. Bates-Diop (68th percentile) will need to prove it, and even if he does, starting him would relegate both Okogie and Goodwin to bench duty. There may not be enough shooting between those two to keep the floor properly spaced in the second unit.
In any case, whether he’s starting games or closing them, Keita Bates-Diop’s switchability will be a welcome asset in Phoenix, especially as the Suns embrace position-less basketball on both ends.
Keita Bates-Diop is connective offensively too
Expectations should be tempered for KBD on the offensive end. If he’s a starter, he’ll be the distant fifth option behind Booker, Beal, Kevin Durant and Deandre Ayton. If he’s coming off the bench, he’s rarely the guy who calls his own number anyway.
However, Bates-Diop can also make the most of his touches as an elite finisher around the basket and connective passer. Ignore him, like the Los Angeles Lakers did back in December of 2021, and he’s capable of making his opponent pay:
Now, is he ever going to make history like that again by scoring 30-plus points on 100 percent shooting in Phoenix? Probably not. But KBD’s ability to convert around the basket will be a welcome addition for a Suns team that lacked rim threats last season, especially if he can step up his efforts as a cutter to play off his superstar teammates.
Bates-Diop only ranked in the 67th percentile in shots at the rim and 47th percentile in his percentage of made shots at the rim that were unassisted, but factoring out garbage time (which the Spurs played in quite a lot), he ranked in the 86th percentile in his percentage of shots at the rim, per Cleaning The Glass.
Watching some of his film, Bates-Diop has superb body control when he attacks the basket, utilizing his body positioning and spin moves to create separation. From there, he maintains that distance between the ball and his defender with his superior length and ability to finish with either hand. He doesn’t hesitate to attack mismatches against smaller or weaker defenders, displays sound footwork once he’s in the paint and uses a nifty scoop layup to stretch his hand just past rim protectors.
Bates-Diop isn’t a lead ball-handler by any means, which shows at times in transition, but he’s capable enough with either hand to attack off the dribble in whatever direction he sees an open driving lane. He’s particularly adept at going baseline and finishing some ridiculous up-and-under reverse layups, even while getting bumped in the process.
“I think you’re gonna be surprised at some of the stuff he’s able to do around the rim with his length,” McDermott said. “Like, he can finish layups I’ve never seen just ’cause how long his arms are.”
The BBall Index backs that assertion up, ranking KBD in the 92nd percentile in rim shot-making. Bates-Diop made 68.2 percent of his shots at the rim last season, which placed him in the NBA’s 84th percentile.
As the clip above shows, he does not shy away from contact either. In most cases, his length is enough to get the job done, but he ranked in the 74th percentile in contact finish rate and the 91st percentile in shooting fouled percentage for a reason. That will be a welcome addition for a Suns team that finished 28th in free-throw attempt rate last year.
Another welcome addition? Bates-Diop’s ability to know his role and keep the ball moving. He didn’t have the same type of scoring talent surrounding him in San Antonio, but he made the right pass to find open teammates. None of these assists are overly flashy or advanced reads, but they’re the types of plays that will stand out more often on a better team:
It remains to be seen how different Phoenix’s offense will look this year. Monty Williams is gone, but Kevin Young stayed on in a sort of offensive coordinator role, so there’s a good chance the core tenets of the Suns’ 0.5 offense will remain intact.
If that’s the case, Bates-Diop’s quick decision-making should be a neat fit. He ranked in the 69th percentile in drive assist rate, 93rd percentile in passing versatility and 67th percentile in role-adjusted assist points per 75 possessions. He even flashed some potential in the pick-and-roll, ranking in the 76th percentile in points per possession as a pick-and-roll ball-handler.
He’ll rarely be tasked with that sort of thing in Phoenix, but his willingness to move the ball will be a solid fit whether he’s starting or coming off the bench.
Will Keita Bates-Diop’s 3-point shooting hold?
This is the question that will ultimately determine how often Phoenix can keep Bates-Diop on the floor. His ability to defend at the point of attack will determine whether he lands a starting job, but his 3-point shot will decide whether he can stay on the floor in a playoff setting.
Last year, Bates-Diop shot a career-high 39.4 percent from 3, which is encouraging. He made 40.5 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s, 41.3 percent of his above-the-break 3s and 37.1 percent of his corner 3s.
The fact that he ranked in the 88th percentile in points per possession on spot-ups was a testament to the hard work he put in to improve this area of his game.
However, before last year’s career-best campaign, he hadn’t shot better than 33 percent from deep in any of his first four NBA seasons. That, plus the fact that he only took 2.1 attempts per game last season, is reason enough to be skeptical.
Once again, Nekias Duncan summed it up best.
“I think Suns fans are really going to enjoy KBD,” Duncan said. “I think he’s going to be fun defensively, and if the shooting proves real, I think it can be the steal of the offseason, if the shot really holds firm for him.”
Watching his film and looking over the numbers, a recurring trend emerged: Keita Bates-Diop was reliable when he was wide open, but outside of that, his efficiency waned.
According to NBA.com, KBD made an exceptional 47.5 percent of his “wide open 3s,” with the nearest defender six-plus feet away. Those 80 attempts constituted more than half of the 142 3-pointers he attempted last season, which is a good sign for Phoenix, since opponents will almost have to leave him open if he’s sharing the court with Booker, Beal and/or Durant.
Bates-Diop ranked in the 81st percentile in openness rating and 94th percentile in 3-point shot quality with the Spurs. Flanked by superior talent, and given enough time and space to load up that release, KBD should be able to capitalize:
However, when defenders contested the shot with a closeout to his feet or a hand up on the release, he lost confidence. That’s true of many shooters; NBA closeouts are the real deal, and pretty much every player in the league shoots a better percentage on uncontested 3s compared to contested looks.
But even dipping the parameters from “wide open 3s” to just “open 3s,” with the nearest defender 4-6 feet away, Bates-Diop’s efficiency plummeted to 28.3 percent shooting. Putting a hand in his face or a body near his landing spot affected the confidence and structural integrity of his jump shot, with KBD either leaning backward to shy away from contact or spreading his feet as he landed:
It shouldn’t be a surprise that Bates-Diop rarely shot unless he was wide open. He only attempted 46 3-pointers that were just “open,” five with “tight” defense and zero with “very tight” defense. In a playoff setting, he’ll very rarely be the guy that knocks down a well-contested 3 with the shot clock winding down.
However, the Suns generated plenty of open looks from the corners in their last playoff series against the Denver Nuggets; they just missed all of them. Plug Bates-Diop into that position, where he has the time to go straight up and down with his jump shot, and Phoenix is hoping he can make them pay. He’ll have to prove last season wasn’t some one-year anomaly, and that his lack of real playoff experience won’t affect his shot when the lights shine at their brightest.
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