When I get into arguments about the merits, or lack thereof, of certain players in the league, I typically go into how crucial the system is for a player.
When people go gonzo about Klay Thompson with this Warriors team, I get a little bit of pushback because I like Klay, he seems like a good guy and a good player, but he is an All-Star due to the system he is in. Had that Kevin Love deal to Golden State for Klay happened, I don’t see Klay leading a Minnesota squad to glory and being an All-Star.
I call it “The Shawn Marion Effect”. Shawn Marion was a phenomenal athlete which given the right system for him (Phoenix) was an All-Star. When he wanted out, he was under the radar in Miami and Toronto. Although his athleticism had started to fade, the defined role in Dallas had him as a vital part of a championship team. And giving us this great memory.
But when I have people asking me “Why did JJ Redick have a better career than Adam Morrison?” The answer is pretty simple – it’s all about the system and location. Both hyped up as great shooters with questionable NBA potential out of college, JJ went to a team that wanted him and let him grow and actually play. People sleep on the fact Adam Morrison had a nice rookie season with the Charlotte Bobcats. Unreal expectations tied with an unfortunately timed injury is what really derailed Morrison.
Morrison started well, including scoring 30 on the Pacers in December of his rookie year but hit the rookie fatigue wall where a drop in his shooting percentage paired with his already weak defense found him losing minutes. The next preseason, he got hurt and with Larry Brown as the coach, Morrison never got another real chance.
Situations like these lead me to the story of one of my all-time favorite “What Could Have Been” players in the NBA: Ike Diogu
Ike Diogu was born in Buffalo, New York to Nigerian immigrants who clearly had no care for the misery of that city’s American football franchise. With a full name of Ikechukwu Somtochukwu Diogu (a name that comes close to Dikembe Mutombo’s full name in my favorite names list), his family moved from New York to Texas, Ike grew up as a basketball prospect playing his AAU ball in Texas alongside future NBA All-Star Chris Bosh and found his way in the sunny Valley of the Sun, becoming an instant star for the Arizona State Sun Devils.
While churning out a respectable few pros such as Alton Lister, Byron Scott and more recently at the time, Eddie House, ASU had more luck churning out stars in their football program and legends from their baseball program.
Ike’s arrival to Arizona State did align with the Sun Devils’ rise to the top of the Top Party Schools list for Playboy Magazine. Lots of great pictures to share there but I’ll leave this article safe for work and just say “Go Devils”.
Always overshadowed by the program across the state, the University of Arizona, Ike came out of nowhere to earn the Pac 10 Freshman of the Year honors and shock the Sun Devils into the second round of March Madness in the Spring of 2003. Ike was one of two Freshmen that year to get All-American votes. The other guy was a Syracuse freshman named Carmelo Anthony. Ike was one of the only players in the Pac 10 to average a double double and the first Freshman since NBA All-Star Shareef Abdur-Rahim to be in the top ten for both scoring and rebounding.
Ike was a star in the making and as his sophomore year began, he was only the 11th Pac 10 player and first ever Arizona State player to be voted to pre-season All-American honors. Ike dominated his sophomore year and finished as one of twenty finalists for the Naismith Player of the Year award in 2003-04, only to go even bigger the next year.
As a Junior, Ike was named Pac 10 Player of the Year and led the Pac 10 in scoring with 22.6 PPG and rebounding with 9.8 RPG. Ike would lead the Pac-10 in several other key offense statistics such as field-goal percentage and offensive rebounds and on the other side of the floor with blocked shots, averaging a fantastic 2.34 per game!
The NBA was calling for Ike but at the time, Ike himself wasn’t sure. His name was floating around draft boards – many in the lottery but others later in the first round. Ike was loving life as a Sun Devil and had stated he was going to wait until the absolute deadline in June to declare for the draft while he weighed his options.
In the meantime, his father was giving interviews stating Ike made his mind up to go pro while most of Ike’s actions seemed to match a desire to stay in Tempe to finish his degree and earn a berth in the NCAA tournament after falling short the previous year and settling for the NIT.
At the deadline, Ike remained in the draft and his choice seemed validated at the times. The struggling Golden State Warriors, who were currently in the largest playoff draught in the league, selected the young power forward with the ninth overall pick.
Ike had a nice training camp but had the misfortune of fracturing his hand on the very last day. Ike would be sidelined for the preseason and start of the season, which wasn’t the best way to get off to start his NBA career.
On November 23rd, 2005, then Warriors coach Mike Montgomery announced Ike would make his NBA debut and it didn’t take too long for Ike to find his groove. Exactly one month later, on 12/23/2005, Ike had a beast game against that spectacular mid-2000s Pistons team in the Palace of Auburn Hills. On a spectacular 13 of 15 shooting, Ike finished with 27 points and 7 rebounds.
Despite these showings, Ike was averaging below fifteen minutes a game. Montgomery had been a victim of Ike during his college days, when Ike dropped 39 on Mike’s Stanford team. But Montgomery didn’t budge because everyone knows you have to give minutes to Troy Murphy.
Don Nelson came in and totally played Ike’s nice guy reputation against him, having coaches tell him “Nice guys don’t make it in the league”. While keeping him low on minutes, Nelson threw him into a giant Golden State and Indiana trade on January 17, 2007, sending Ike with Mike Dunleavy Jr, Troy Murphy and Keith McLeod to the Pacers for Stephen Jackson, Al Harrington, Sarunas Jasikevicius and Josh Powell.
Then-Pacers GM Larry Bird deemed Diogu the “gem” of the trade but Ike was coming over with one of the guys he was fighting for minutes for on the previous team and the veteran Murphy would surely get the bulk of the minutes on a playoff contender.
Ike was getting even less minutes in Indiana but here’s the thing, he was always effective on the floor. In the days before executives in the league really going nuts over Player Efficiency Rating (PER), ESPN’s Josh Hollinger was citing how the deal could be seen as “The Ike Diogu Trade” in ten years, as of all the players involved, when Ike was on the floor, he was most productive and had the best efficiency rating of anyone in the trade.
Ike started the 2007-08 campaign averaging almost 14 PPG in the first three games but then missed twenty due to a calf injury. He comes back and they keep him on their bench for another year of decreasing playing time before throwing him in a deal on Draft Night 2008. The Pacers selected another player with Arizona ties, Jerryd Bayless, out of the University of Arizona and trade him with Diogu to the Portland Trail Blazers for the rights to Brandon Rush, Jarrett Jack and Josh McRoberts.
Just three years after dominating the Pac 10 and seeming to want to go back, he finds himself as an afterthought in trades. There was no hope of redemption in Portland. The Blazers, now a playoff team, were feeding all the minutes at his position to the young LaMarcus Aldridge.
At this point, people started labeling Ike as a lottery bust, citing him in Warriors busts like Todd Fuller, the lackluster center they drafted when they could’ve grabbed Kobe Bryant or Steve Nash. While Fuller was picked over two Hall of Famers, there was a fair amount of guys who were solid pros for stretches that followed – Andrew Bynum, Danny Granger, Nate Robinson and David Lee in the first round with second round picks like Brandon Bass and Monta Ellis, who the Warriors drafted anyway. Other guys had solid careers in the league but Ike’s misuse shouldn’t classify him in the same category as passing on the future league MVP and Hall of Famers.
The Blazers coach, Nate McMillan, would tell Oregon reports he could play but they wouldn’t give him minutes over Greg Oden or Joel Przybilla. Despite Oden having his own injury woes, Aldridge, Pryzbilla, Channing Frye, among other bigs gives Ike another team that has guys that, right or wrong, they place in front of him on the depth chart and send him to Sacramento for journeyman Michael Ruffin in February of that year.
Channing Frye is an interesting name to see opposite of his. Frye was selected by the New York Knicks one pick ahead of Ike. The Knicks treated him as if he was the future of the Knicks his rookie year and since then he has found a way to be a solid jump-shooting four for years in the league. Ike had way more upside but Frye managed to find himself in featured positions with teams and by the time he and Ike were on the same team, Frye had a better name in the league.
Ike’s rookie contract ended and the opportunities never really came around. He would sign with the New Orleans Hornets but never get on the floor. He’d go to training camp with the Pistons, and they’d waive him in the final cuts.
Diogu showed flashes of productivity with the Clippers and the Spurs but it was at the point where his role in the league was designated as a “fill-in”, rather than giving him the larger role he showed he could handle in college. It was never for the lack of ability, it purely came across as the lack of opportunity or landing in the right spot.
In recent years, Ike has floated back and forth between NBA training camps and teams overseas. Ike would have strong showings with the Phoenix Suns and the New York Knicks in training camps in 2012 and 2013 respectively but always end up being the last guy cut.
He would be productive in China, in Puerto Rico, and in 2014 he was the Impact Player of the Year for the D-League.
Ike’s shown his skill in the international game while competing with the Nigerian National Team but even found injury woes when Nigeria faced key games in 2015.
In Fall 2015, Arizona State recognized Diogu’s contributions to the school and the basketball program by inducting him in the Arizona State University Hall of Fame alongside other notable Sun Devil alumni like Dustin Pedroia of the Boston Red Sox.
To me, I will always have fond memories of guys like Ike Diogu. It gets frustrating to watch guys like Michael Beasley in the league, getting all kinds of opportunities over and over and never capitalizing. While we likely will not be seeing Beasley on the NBA level again, Diogu is a guy who wasn’t as snakebitten as other injured players but always seemed to get them at the right time while never really seeming to get the opportunity he deserved.