For a time, in the 2014 spring just after he’d arrived in the United States from Guinea, Mamadi Diakite appeared to be a mid-level prospect or perhaps someone who could improve and become a major conference project.
But the 6-9 big man shed any notion of being mid-level by the end of that summer, and since last fall he has earned a reputation as one of the country’s most dangerous shotblockers.
He also developed great comfort and familiarity with nearby Virginia, engendering a close-knit relationship early in his recruitment.
Diakite enjoyed a stellar junior season at the Blue Ridge School, leading his squad to a private school state championship. He suited up with Team Takeover during this past spring but didn’t find a fit with the EYBL-backed program, and he ultimately finished his travel season with Team Loaded VA.
Loaded VA closed its July by winning the Adidas Summer Championships in Las Vegas, where Diakite was one of several big-timers competing for the squad.
His recruitment percolated early but not surprisingly operated in less conventional fashion, given that Diakite had spent relatively little time in America and given the fact that his parents — both doctors — needed additional time before they could join their son stateside.
Diakite increasingly gained attention and ultimately considered programs such as Georgetown, Washington, USC, Louisville and NC State, but ultimately he announced for Virginia following a successful stint at Adidas Nations in early August.
Diakite is a sensationally athletic big man. He runs with eye-catching speed and is explosively quick off the floor — likely his No. 1 athletic attribute. He thus plucks shots out of the air on a regular basis, skies for straight-up tip slams and generally soars above the rim.
He also boasts exceptionally long arms, making him that much more effective inside. But while his length and athleticism would suggest he’s a full-time rim protector, in fact that’s oversimplifying his game.
Diakite possesses excellent lateral quickness and thus could develop into an outstanding defender in high screen and roll. Admittedly, the Cavaliers do more to deter penetration at the top of their defense than they do extending with their big men, but it’s worth noting that he possesses that capability.
Offensively, he remains a work in progress but does hold potential. Diakite does his best work at the high post, where he’s a gifted passer and also a decent ballhandler. He has a jab step that he uses to freeze opposing big men and then jets by them for dunks.
While his jump shot is inconsistent, he does hit some from the middle areas and also can hit a contested turnaround from short range. But clearly his greatest effect on team offense at present is his ability to fly onto the offensive glass. He doesn’t retrieve as many caroms as a coach may want (more on that below), but he keeps balls in play and certainly does hammer down his share of lobs and tip-slams.
Beyond that, Diakite’s stamina is abnormal and enables him to play hard for the duration of a contest. He also has improved so much in short order relative to his peers, who’s to say when that rapid progress will flatten out?
Two areas define where Diakite must work very hard to improve. First, he has very skinny lower legs, the type that may not enable him to gain weight easily. If that proves to be the case, he will be forced to play more of a face-up, freelance athletic style.
Shotblockers don’t have to be muscular specimens, but they must be able to hold their position in order not to get pushed under the rim and out of the play. Diakite has gained some upper body strength, but he must do the best he can to become sturdier through his legs.
Meanwhile, his hands have been his chief limiting factor as a scorer. Diakite sometimes drops balls he should catch cleanly and also misses some easy finishes for the same reason, and he’s prone to getting stripped as well as fumbling potential rebounds.
He does surprise on other occasions, however, ripping down a board with his left hand. But clearly this is an area he must address intensely in order to become a balanced performer on a sustained basis.
Diakite’s fit at Virginia is an intriguing one. There’s nothing story-worthy about a very bright young person attending a prestigious institution such as UVa, but from a basketball point of view he represents a departure from some of Virginia’s workhorse big men such as Anthony Gill.
And it’s a needed change, because occasionally — such as versus Duke and Michigan State last season — the Wahoos struggled to contain an opponent’s elite athletes. Diakite will enable them to match up better against those top-shelf foes, as well as give them an opportunity to apply athletic pressure of their own.
Fellow 2016 commitment Jay Huff is the more typical Bennett recruit, and Diakite will complement the stretch big man extremely well. The program aims to take the next step in terms of NCAA Tournament success, and Diakite brings a style that will mesh well with present and incoming recruits while also giving the coaching staff greater roster flexibility.
Diakite currently ranks No. 45 in the Class of 2016.