Rob Dillingham Can’t Wait To Bring His Own Style To The NBA

Rob Dillingham is smiling before I even finish my question. It’s my version of the size question, the thing that shows up on every scouting report going into the 2024 NBA Draft as a leading question for the 19-year-old guard out of Kentucky. He knows it’s not going away, but doesn’t run or pretend it isn’t something he’ll have to navigate as a pro. On the other hand, he’s also ready to defend himself, noting he’s not that small.

“I mean, size matters to a certain extent, but I feel like — I’m 6’2. Like, 6’2 is solid enough. That’s blessed, to me,” Dillingham says with his ever-present grin. “Obviously it’s a little bit of size. I’m a little smaller, but I can dribble the ball, I can get people off balance. So, it helps me offensive-wise, but it also helps me with other things because I’m faster. I’m more elusive. But also it’s kind of a weakness because some guards can just post me up.

“But basketball is a five-on-five game,” he continues. “I just feel like size does matter to a certain extent, but if you have effort, size is only so much. Because there’s a lot of players in the league that’s been 6’2 — or a lot of players that’s been smaller — that’s been great players and won championships.”

That kind of positivity radiates off of Dillingham. The way he sees it, there’s an opportunity in everything, you just have to be willing to challenge yourself to go get it. That’s a mindset that fit right in at Kentucky, where he was asked to come off the bench and challenged by the coaching staff to really refine his game.

Being pushed like that is why he thinks Kentucky has such a great track record of putting out NBA stars, noting some schools might tell you what you want to hear. But Coach Cal and the Kentucky staff (which moved on to Arkansas earlier this offseason) will tell you the truth and show you what could be if you put in the work.

“Getting to Kentucky, that’s exactly what happened to me. I went in and I just learned so much. I understood that I was good, but you can simplify your game and make it more pro-like and you can keep doing it no matter what,” Dillingham says. “And I feel like I started understanding that once I got in the gym with all these guys, and coach John Welch, and all these dudes every day, and they made me understand that I could be better than what I am. Now that I look at it, I never look at it like I have a ceiling. I just always keep trying to get better every day. And sometimes I feel like people get caught up in getting better, so much better in the day that you stress yourself out. And I feel like it’s good to do that because you want to always be on top, but to a certain extent. Greatness never stops. You always have another day. You always have another day. And that’s how I look at it now. And I feel like that’s what has pushed me.”

He knows what the questions are about his game, highlighting defense and playmaking as the focal points as he gets set to make a leap to the next level. Now, every player says they want to get better at everything, but not all of them have the plan of action to make that actually happen.

Dillingham insists that won’t be the case for him, noting, “Anything I’m lacking is gainable, for sure.” The defensive end is where the size questions persist the most, but he hopes to make up for that with effort and intensity. He wants to be a “bug” for opposing guards, while also understanding that he has to match aggression with intent in order to make that work in a team setting. That’s meant film work and taking notes while watching the playoffs to see how the league’s best defensive guards navigate screens, how they set their bodies up to not get stuck and when they decide to fight over or slip under, something that will be crucial to his ability to succeed on defense as a smaller guard.

On the offensive end, Dillingham is excited to get a chance to expand his game as a playmaker at the next level. He notes he wasn’t ever tasked with being the main point guard at Kentucky, but thinks his year in Lexington really expanded his capacity as a facilitator.

“I would say really what helped me is just taking the dribbles out and actually scanning the floor instead of taking extra dribbles that don’t need to be taken,” Dillingham says. “So, when I come off screens, it’s more of a hold. Like, I hold it, hesitate, read the floor, and I feel like going to Kentucky helped me do that because I had so many players that could score the ball, could cut, dunk. So I had to look around, and I had to look for everyone, and it wasn’t just about me. I feel like that’s what helped me for sure. And it helped me just learn the game more, raise my IQ.”

Unlocking those skills and rounding out his game will be what determines how good Dillingham can be at the NBA level, but what makes him a lottery prospect right now is his ability to get buckets. Dillingham averaged 15.2 points per game off the bench for the Wildcats last year, shooting 47.5 percent from the field and 44.4 percent from three, with that three-point prowess being the real catalyst for his rise up draft boards.

Shooting the three wasn’t his big strength coming out of Overtime Elite (31.9 percent in 2022-23), but as he explained, it was his Kentucky teammates that pushed him to really work on his shot in a way he never had before, with the results speaking for themselves.

“I would say really just shooting with Antonio Reeves and Reed Sheppard every day and by me coming in going against them,” Dillingham says of his improvement as a consistent shooting threat. “I could always shoot the ball, but my focus isn’t there just to sit there and shoot the ball. I’m more of an in-game shooter. So when I’m shooting against them every single day, and they sit there and shoot the ball and they can hit 20 shots in a row, it’s like I’m going against them every day. So it’s just motivating me to shoot as good as them, so during that season, I’m shooting just as many shots as them, shooting more shots than them every day.

“So really just consistency and understanding it’s how you shoot it but it’s also a mindset. If you know you make these shots, if you go in there and shoot these shots every single day, it’s no reason when you get in the game, you’re not going to hit the shots. And every game, you’re not gonna hit every single shot, but that’s just how life works. Life don’t go like that. So that’s how I look at it. I feel like more times than not I’m gonna hit more shots than I miss.”

That mindset fits alongside a level of confidence and self-assurance that extends beyond the basketball court. Dillingham doesn’t just play with his confidence and flair on the court, but carries those elements off of it as well. He is big into fashion, crafting a style all his own, explaining it’s another way to express himself to people who may otherwise not know anything about him.

“Really it’s just certain things, you like what you like. I feel like not a lot of things really make you super happy in life. So I feel like when you find something that makes you happy, you gotta stick to it, so when I look in fashion, there’s just certain things that I like and it’s my style, I feel like. And it makes me happy. It makes me feel good,” Dillingham says of his fashion sense. “Sometimes I don’t want to be too much, but also I want people to see it to a certain extent. I just like fashion because I feel like it shows your personality without people having to talk to you. Everybody has certain inputs on you before they meet you, so I feel like fashion is a little thing that shows people your personality before you actually get to know someone.”

He put that on display by showing up at the NBA Draft Lottery in a fit that differentiated himself from the rest of the class of 2024 that was on site, and set the bar incredibly high for his actual Draft night look.

There’s a connection between Dillingham’s approach to fashion and his approach to basketball. The same self-confidence required to embrace your own style off the court is necessary to finding it on the hardwood as well.

“Off the court I just wear what I want to wear. I’m free. But just like in the game, you gotta be loose,” Dillingham said. “You gotta listen, obviously. You gotta do what you have to do to win, but to a certain extent you can’t let people take your confidence, and you can’t not be yourself. And you gotta learn how to put them together and work the best of both worlds.”

Dillingham’s year at Kentucky helped him learn how to strike that balance between being himself and playing for the greater goal of the team. As a young player, particularly a highly touted recruit, it’s easy to get caught up in your own individual accolades and stat lines, as you try to get offers and raise your profile. But to make that next step, Dillingham said he had to learn to let go of that mindset and take a different approach, recognizing how when you do the things that make your teammates better, it raises your game as well.

“I would say really just being more of a leader and understanding the whole team aspect of everything. And just being more of a winner and not caring about individual or scoring,” Dillingham says when asked where he grew the most last year. “It just helped me become more of a team player and understand that it’s not all about me at all. And that’s what boosts you. That’s what takes you to the next level. I feel like everyone has talent, but once you understand that it’s a lot of people out here with talent, how are you going to make them better? That’s what makes you better than them. I feel like that’s what pushes you, and I’ve started to understand that. So now I feel like my game has gone to the next level because I don’t think about me when I’m playing basketball. I always just try to make the right play. I try to make it. And when you do that, that’s how it always works out.”

For Dillingham, that meant embracing a sixth man role in Lexington despite being a lottery talent. As always, he finds the positives, explaining experience has him better prepared for coming into the NBA, because you never know what the roster situation will be on a team that drafts you. Unlike most top prospects, Dillingham has real-world experience in handling different roles and figuring out how to excel in them.

He insists it wasn’t difficult at all to take on a bench role at Kentucky, noting he looked at his teammates as brothers and that they all quickly bought in to the mindset of playing for each other. Again, that’s not always the easiest thing to put into action as a talented young player who has often been the star, but Dillingham points to his upbringing and heritage as a big factor in his outlook on life and the team.

“My mom, she’s full Samoan. She’s straight from the island. So really, you get to see another part of life that a lot of people don’t see, and I feel like my mom’s family is more of a cultured family. They care way more about family stuff,” Dillingham says. “I feel like it’s given me an advantage to be more loving and that’s how you get people to grow to you. Because not everyone has a family to talk to, so when you treat everyone like family, it helps you grow for sure.”

As he gets ready to hear his name called on Wednesday night, Dillingham is simply excited to find out where he’ll take the next step of his journey. For all the questions on the outside about his size or best role in the NBA, Dillingham carries none of that with him, exuding confidence that, even if it takes time, he’ll excel once he reaches the NBA. It’s the message he wanted to pass along to teams and fans before a Draft filled with uncertainty up and down the board.

“I just want fans to know, any team or fan or organization that chooses me, it’s not a downfall. It’s not a risk. It’s not any of that. Because I’m always going to work,” Dillingham said with conviction. “And even if it’s not the first, second, or third year, I’m going to produce something in the future for that organization if they let me.

“So I just want people to know that it’s not a fluke or it’s not a risk or anything. I’m here to stay.”