By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE– When he arrived in the United States in January 2014 and enrolled at Blue Ridge School, Mamadi Diakite spoke four languages fluently.
English was not one of them. Would he have thought then that, several years later, he’d be standing in front of a class and delivering a speech at the University of Virginia?
“Never in English,” Diakite said.
But that’s what he’s done this semester in Speaking in Public, a course taught by Denise Stewart in UVA’s drama department. Diakite, a native of Guinea, is in his fourth year of college, and much has changed since he arrived at the University in the summer of 2015.
“He’s just grown so much,” said T.J. Grams, the academic advisor for the men’s basketball team. “He likes learning. He enjoys his classes. He’s really built a lot of good relationships on Grounds with faculty members and tutors. His greatest strength as a student is his personality. People love him, he is always willing to engage in class.”
Diakite is majoring in French, with a minor in Global Culture and Commerce. He’s now fluent in English, as well as in French, Malinke, Soussou and Peul, the languages he mastered before coming to America.
The 6-9, 230-pound redshirt junior is more comfortable in head coach Tony Bennett’s program, too. He’s expected to start at power forward for Virginia, which opens the season Nov. 6 against Towson at John Paul Jones Arena.
“It does feel different,” Diakite said Wednesday evening at JPJ, where the Cavaliers will play their annual Pepsi Blue-White scrimmage Saturday at 2 p.m.
“When I came in, I knew nothing,” said Diakite, who weighed 190 pounds when he enrolled at UVA. “When I say I knew nothing, I’m relating it to the language. I’m also relating it to communication. It was hard for me to communicate. Right now, everything has gotten easier. I’m able to understand everyone, it’s clear, but I’ve still got to do a good job of bringing myself to the next level, because that’s what the team needs.”
When he left Guinea, Diakite recalled, “I didn’t know anything about America, really. I was mostly focused on Europe.”
The learning process began in earnest at Blue Ridge, a private school about 20 miles north of Charlottesville, and has continued at UVA.
“He’s just become a lot more independent,” Grams said. “It took him a long time to understand there’s a language barrier to get over, but also a cultural expectation, too. What it meant to show up on time, and the understanding that you’re supposed to be sitting in a classroom five minutes before it starts. He’s really embraced that, I think.”
The magnitude of Diakite’s learning curve at times has tested the patience of basketball staffers, but his growth is a testament “to our culture and to Coach Bennett and how supportive he’s been of Mamadi’s experience,” Grams said.
In 2015-16, when Diakite was redshirting, Bennett allowed him to miss practice every Wednesday in order to attend a not-for-credit ESL (English as a Second Language) course.
“Coach really took the long view of him developmentally,” Grams said. “Not just on the floor, but off.”
On the court, this is a pivotal year for Diakite, a key reserve for the Wahoos the past two seasons. “He’s always shown glimpses, but it’s been in short spurts,” associate head coach Jason Williford said. “He needs to put those together for a longer time and be able to do that consistently.”
Among the players lost from a team that swept the ACC’s regular-season and tournament titles in 2017-18 was 6-7 forward Isaiah Wilkins, who anchored Virginia’s trademark Pack Line defense.
Diakite, who shot 57.7 percent from the floor last season, is more gifted offensively than Wilkins, the ACC’s defensive player of the year in 2017-18. But Diakite must contribute more than scoring if the ‘Hoos are to contend again in the conference.
“We need him to be very efficient when he gets touches,” Williford said, “but we also need him to rim-protect and rebound and defend the way Isaiah did, which will be extremely hard.
“Isaiah would cover up for tons of mistakes just by being alert, being aware totally of what was going on from every spot on the floor.”
Diakite is an exceptional athlete with a soft shooting touch. In each of Virginia’s first two games at the ACC tournament in March – wins over Louisville and Clemson at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. – he was 5 for 8 from the floor and scored 10 points.
“He was very efficient,” Williford said. “So what he has to do is continue to offensively give you that, but defensively not make as many mistakes.
“I think it’s totally a mental approach for him. The physical tools are there, but mentally can he lock in for longer stretches? You’d put him in the game, and as soon as he got tired, he gave in to fatigue, and he wasn’t mentally tough enough to fight through that.”
As the Cavaliers’ opener draws closer, Williford likes what he’s seen from Diakite at the defensive end this fall.
“So far, so good,” Williford said.
As a redshirt freshman in 2016-17, Diakite averaged 3.8 points per game. He was more productive last season, averaging 5.4 points, and had several memorable performances. But he says he was “a little laid-back” for the first half of the season.
“This year I’ve realized, wow, I’m in a big situation now,” Diakite said. “I need to take care of all of my stuff, on and off the court. I don’t have any room for mistakes.”
He knows that it’s not enough to be in shape. Mental toughness is required to thrive in Bennett’s system.
“Some days when you’re not feeling good, you’ve got to do the same routine,” said Diakite, who lives with teammates Marco Anthony, Jay Huff, De’Andre Hunter and Ty Jerome.
“You’ve just got to make sure that mentally you’re ready to do it. It’s not easy. Most of the stuff that we do defensively, it wears us out.”
For UVA, the 2017-18 season ended in shocking fashion: with a loss to UMBC in the NCAA tournament’s first round. The Retrievers became the first No. 16 seed to defeat a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tourney.
“I think the way we went out last year, for all of those returning guys, has instilled a harder work ethic,” Williford said. “They want to improve individually, improve their skills, improve their bodies, and it’s made them, I hope, a little more hungry for this year.”
Diakite said that’s been the case for him since the end of last season. In addition to playing, lifting and running with his teammates at JPJ, he’s worked out with two former UVA players: Mamadi Diane and Damin Altizer, a skills trainer who coaches the boys team at nearby St. Anne’s-Belfield School.
“I put in the work,” Diakite said, and his improvement has been noticeable.
“I think he’s shown that in the offseason,” Williford said. “He’s worked extremely hard on his game, and I think he’s gotten older and wiser. I’m very hopeful, based on how hard he’s working.
“I expect big things from Mamadi. I’ve seen the work he’s put in. I work with the bigs, so I am all in his corner. I want him to give us a big punch.”