Sept. 29, 2015
By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The door to the players’ lounge at John Paul Jones Arena opened, and in walked strength and conditioning coach Mike Curtis, a protein shake in each hand.
Mamadi Diakite looked up and smiled.
“That’s my man right there,” Diakite said. “He’s taking care of me.”
Curtis, a UVa graduate, works closely with all of the men’s basketball players at his alma mater. One of his special projects this academic year, though, will be the 6-10 Diakite, a native of Guinea who was an 11th-hour addition to the Cavaliers’ 2015-16 recruiting class this summer.
“He poses a different type of challenge, because the cultural differences and the language barrier are something different that has to be taken into consideration,” Curtis said.
Diakite (pronounced Dee-ah-key-tay) moved to the United States from Guinea in January 2014 and enrolled at Blue Ridge School, not far from Charlottesville. When he arrived at the University late this summer, Diakite weighed only 190 pounds. He’s up to about 195, but much work remains on that front.
“He doesn’t even fit into the shirt he’s got on,” Curtis pointed out during a recent workout at JPJ. “It’s too big, and it’s one of the smallest sizes we have.”
Fortunately for Curtis, he has the luxury of time. Diakite, who turns 19 in January, will redshirt at UVa in 2015-16, after which he’ll have four years of eligibility remaining.
“There’s so many things that we’re throwing at him right now that he has to process and understand to make sure that he can actually do the right things to support this training process over the next 14 months,” Curtis said.
“That’s been the biggest challenge: just sitting him down and having him understand, `You need to be able to do this. You need to balance your time, you need to eat well, you need to do all these things.’ Because that hasn’t been part of the way he’s lived his life.”
The redshirt year should be of enormous benefit to Diakite, head coach Tony Bennett said, “being newer to the game, newer to the country. First, it allows him to have a real strong focus on getting his academic base. And then the same thing basketball-wise and same thing strength and conditioning-wise.”
Diakite, who wears size 16.5 shoes, is exceptionally athletic and has a huge wingspan, and his shooting form is excellent.
“The biggest thing lacking from his game right now is strength,” said Blue Ridge coach Cade Lemcke, a former UVa player.
Curtis said: “It’s going to be a pretty long process, but 14 months is enough time to make some substantial headway. As with most of our guys, we look at it as a four-year process, and it just helps that we have a year where basketball is not necessarily there from a competitive standpoint. We can focus a little bit more on pushing Mamadi through some of those periods of time where he may have a little fatigue, things we have to take into consideration when we’re dealing with the guys who are playing.”
After one season as an assistant coach at Longwood University, Lemcke joined the Blue Ridge staff as an assistant in May 2014 and began working with Diakite.
“The player he is now compared to then is very different,” Lemcke said, “and it’s not because he’s gotten stronger. It’s all the other stuff on the court, learning the game. He’s naturally a great athlete, but he had to learn the different aspects of playing with your back to the basket, learning the right way to shoot the ball.
“And then defensively, learning about your timing, a blocked shot compared to a goaltend, and defending your man with the ball compared to being a help defender and the differences there.”
Diakite also played soccer and competed in track and field at Blue Ridge — he set a school record by high-jumping 6 feet, 6 inches — but his athletic focus was basketball. He proved to be an apt student of the game.
“He was a sponge for soaking all that up,” Lemcke said, “and then he was a sponge for wanting to watch pros and college guys and how they do it. So with YouTube and all these other things on-line, he would be watching [Hakeem] Olajuwon, Tim Duncan, Dwight Howard, watching these guys almost daily on YouTube, just looking at how they do things and then looking at guys like Kevin Durant, even LeBron, these bigger wings that could attack off the dribble. He was watching that stuff non-stop, which allowed him to get on that trajectory that he’s been on.”
In 2014-15, Diakite led the Barons to a 22-4 record and the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association Division II state title. Among the college programs that pursued him were Washington and Southern California, but Diakite says he always favored Virginia.
“Since the first day I came to UVa, I felt like I was going to be here,” he said. “That’s home, man. UVa is home.”
Diakite, who rooms with another freshman forward, Jarred Reuter, began taking unofficial trips to Virginia not long after he enrolled at Blue Ridge. During those visits to JPJ, Diakite befriended many of the players who are now his teammates, as well as the coaching staff.
Not until early last month, though, did Diakite actually commit to the Cavaliers. He did not want to rush his decision, he said, and his parents, who are doctors in Guinea, needed to be sure that Virginia was the best place for him.
Diakite could have delayed his enrollment at UVa until 2016, but he was able to graduate from Blue Ridge this summer. Because he spent most of his high school years in Guinea, though, his transcript was unlike that of a traditional college-bound student from the United States, and the NCAA did not clear him until late this summer.
“It was a big situation,” Diakite said. “We had to fight through it. We had to write a lot of waivers to send to the NCAA, from my school, from my parents and people that I know, people that are around me.”
Almost from his first day at UVa, Diakite has been training regularly with Curtis, and the workouts have been grueling.
“You gotta fight through it,” Diakite said. “It’s not easy to be lifting with Coach Curtis. But he’s the best … He knows what he’s doing, and he’s got good people around him.”
Those people include Randy Bird, Virginia’s director of sports nutrition, and Ethan Saliba, Virginia’s head athletic trainer. Diakite meets regularly with both of them.
“So I can get better,” Diakite said. “Even thought I don’t want to get really big, I have to be strong. I’m going to go against people who have been in this conference for a long time.”
As for sitting out this coming season, Diakite said, “I’m hungry, you know? I want to get on the floor right now, but I can’t, because of certain conditions. I have to get” — he paused — “not big, but I have to be ready for it mentally and physically.”
Practices figure to accelerate Diakite’s development. The Cavaliers have won back-to-back ACC regular-season titles and are expected to begin 2015-16 ranked in the top 10.
UVa’s veterans include post players Mike Tobey, Anthony Gill, Evan Nolte and Isaiah Wilkins, and they’ll be challenged in practice by a scout team led by Diakite and 6-9 Austin Nichols, a talented transfer from Memphis who’ll sit out this season too.
“Those are some good shot-blockers on the back line,” Bennett said. “I think you want that to be as competitive as you can, and I think that’s one of the things that drew [Nichols and Diakite to UVa]. They knew they weren’t going to be playing [in 2015-16], but in practice they’re going to be going against some quality forwards and frontcourt players, with the experience we have, and then vice versa.”
Diakite is settling in at UVa, where he plans to major in economics and minor in international business. Everywhere he turns, it seems to Diakite, someone is there to help him, whether it be Bennett or associate head coach Ron Sanchez or the team’s academic advisor, T.J. Grams.
“My teammates, also,” Diakite said. “They’re wonderful people.”
Diakite spoke four languages fluently — French, Malinke, Soussou and Peul — before arriving in the United States. He began learning English in earnest when he enrolled at Blue Ridge and has made impressive progress.
“It’s coming,” said Diakite, who speaks with an accent. “I’m starting to think in English right now. It’s just been one year and nine months that I’m speaking English.”
His goal is to become a little more comfortable with the language each day. Similarly, he’s looking to make steady progress on the basketball court.
“Something that Coach Sanchez and Coach Bennett told me,” Diakite said, “is that if you want to make it to the NBA, or if you want to make it to a certain level, don’t be thinking about the level always. Think about what you can do today, tomorrow, the next day, and the following days.
“So that’s the process right there. Think about today, tomorrow, the next day, and get better. Try to do better than you did the last time. Try to show you’ve learned something from what you’ve done before.”
Preseason practice officially begins Friday for the Wahoos, and Diakite is thrilled to be part of the team, even if his college debut won’t come until 2016-17. The ‘Hoos are thrilled to have him.
“I think this experience will be good for him,” Bennett said. “He’ll go through a lot, but he doesn’t have to rush now, and I think he’ll benefit a lot more from this year than if he just had stayed in high school.”