Virginia fans had big expectations for Mamadi Diakite when he joined the program in 2015. He had been a primary recruit for two years, leading Virginia fans through a fascinating soap opera complete with villains (the handler and the NCAA), heroes (Bennett, Mamadi's parents back in Africa), and the lovable protagonist - Mamadi himself. Later, of course, we learned that he had been a secret commit for quite some time. During this time, we watched him go from a complete unknown to a top 50 recruit on one of the nation's best AAU teams. He tantalized with his freakish athleticism, intelligence, infectious personality, and robust competitiveness.
The top end potential was always there, but when I watched him play for Blue Ridge in his junior (and what would turn out to be his last) season, I thought he had so far to go in grasping the game that he might not approach his potential in time to help UVA. There were nine-year-olds in American elementary schools who had more internalized understanding of the game than he showed. He also, it has become apparent, had a long way to go in learning what it takes to develop mastery and to excel - a lesson more than a few teenagers desperately need to learn. In his three years at UVA, Mamadi has learned a great deal, and progressed as a basketball player far more than I thought possible from his play at Blue Ridge. He still has a long way to go, but toward the end of each season we have seen him reach another level and give promise of a step forward the following season.
After the loss to Virginia Tech when the guards hoisted 38 threes and couldn't splash a third of them while the posts attempted a grand total of 5 shots between them, the team refocused on balancing the attack and getting the post players involved. Mamadi was the chief beneficiary of that refocusing - or maybe it was that he was the most assertive in capitalizing on it. In 5 of the next 7 games, Mamadi scored 9 or 10 points after having scored as many as 7 points only twice in ACC play. He scored not only on putbacks and feeds from driving guards, but also on a faceup game and post moves. He demonstrated a soft touch within 10 feet of the basket, and the ability to hit his shot while taking contact. He gave us a glimpse of what could be in store this season.
What He Brings
Mamadi brings an ability to make "Wow" plays on both offense and defense, with the potential to dominate - at least in spurts. Defensively he is disruptive in both the vertical and horizontal dimensions. He gets off the floor quickly not just the first time, but the second as well, giving him the ability to challenge a shot then recover to impact the play again. He is also very quick on the ground with tremendous acceleration and top-end speed, allowing him to hedge out to mid-court and recover to the paint. He has excellent hand-eye coordination. All of this gives him a Zay-like ability to blow up offenses. Mamadi also has a Zay-like desire for the ball.
Like most foreign-born kids who pick up the game late, Mamadi's offense is behind his defense, but his natural grace has made him a good finisher around the basket since he began playing at UVA. Whether it's a dunk, or an under-the-basket scoop, or a little flip or toss, he puts the ball in the basket on an impressive proportion of his opportunities. Of the just under 50% of his shots that he took at the rim, Mamadi converted 75%, highest amongst rotation player and behind only Jay Huff's 85%. His proficiency around the rim put him at the top of NCAA players, with his 1.554 PPP production scoring a 98% Excellent rating on Synergy. On cuts to the basket, he ranked at 90% with 1.435 PPP. As a result, he was one of the team's most productive players, his overall offense grading out at 87%, and a whopping 93% against zones.
For the season, Mamadi's efficiency in post-ups was not good. His 0.72 PPP was graded "Average" at 31%, but during that late seven-game stretch, Mamadi was very effective in the post. We will see this season if he turned a corner, or if it were just another blip.
While Mamadi didn't score at a great clip on post moves, he gave up even less. In addition to his disruptive abilities, Diakite was a pretty good individual defender, ranking at 90% on post defense and 74% on iso plays. He gave up a mere 0.559 PPP in the post and 0.636 PPP on isolations. Where he struggled statistically - and this is significant - was on defending the pick-and-roll roll man, where he was barely average (38%) giving up 0.944 PPP. In Virginia's defense, especially the way teams attack the PacklineTM with constant P&R action, that is of concern.
What I Would Like To See More
Face up drives. Each of the last two seasons, Mamadi has flashed some things. The ability to drive the ball is one of them. Late in his freshman year, he made a couple of strong drives, and I hoped to see more of it. For most of the season, not so much. Then in the last quarter of the season we saw him attack Louisville, Miami, Notre Dame and Clemson. With his quickness and touch he should be able to draw plenty of fouls, a la Anthony Gill.
Blocked shots. As a freshman, Mamadi sported a hefty 12.0% block rate. Coming into his sophomore year, he was focused on being more positionally sound in the Packline and not trying to block so many shots. He definitely succeeded at not blocking so many shots. His block rate fell to 4.1%. Mamadi did improve his positional defense. His post defense improved dramatically. With the loss of Isaiah Wilkins, Mamadi can even less afford to make mistakes, but his challenge in his junior year is to play sounder defense while still challenging shots and protecting the rim.
Rebounds. In 2013-14, Akil Mitchell grabbed 23.5% of defensive rebounds. In 2014-15, Mike Tobey grabbed 21.6%, then in 2015-16 almost matched Mitchell with 23.2%. Since then, the Hoos haven't had a rebounder reach 19%, with Wilkins getting closest last year at 18.7%. The Hoos are going to need one or both of Jack Salt and Mamadi to step up and grab more rebounds.
Continued Improvement. Mamadi has made considerable improvement since he started playing. He raised his TS% (True Shooting %) from a good 56.2% to a very good 60.9% on a usage rate that grew from 15.6% to 19.2%, improved DReb% from 15.3% to 16.4%, brought his free throw percentage up from 54.5% to 78% and even further to 81% in ACC play, bumped up his scoring from 10.8/40 minutes to 13.7/40 minutes, and dropped his foul rate from 6.7/40 min to 5.6/40 min. All are laudable and encouraging accomplishments, but the DReb% and foul rate in particular are still in need of substantial improvement. The 25+ minutes per game the team needs from Mamadi this year are unsustainable unless that foul rate comes way down. In ACC play, his minutes actually decreased from his freshman year, falling from 13.4 to 12.8.
What I Would Like To See Less
Fouls. Mamadi still fouls a lot. At 5.6 fouls/40 minutes overall and 5.9 in conference play, he can't give Virginia the 25 minutes of aggressive play that the team needs from him. He has to develop better judgment and cut out the silly fouls.
Turnovers. As a freshman, Mamadi was careful with the ball, sporting the second-lowest turnover percentage on the team at 10.8%. Not as a sophomore. His turnover rate made a noticeable jump up to 14.8%. That's a 40% increase if you're keeping score at home.
With Isaiah Wilkins moving on, the Hoos need to replace his minutes. Tony Bennett would love to use De'Andre Hunter for a lot of those minutes, but Hunter is the only player who can replace most of Devon Hall's 32.1 minutes per game, so his ability to chip in at the four is limited. If Braxton Key gets his waiver - which I thought likely the other day but now have doubts - he could provide some coverage here, but if not, Jay Huff and Francesco Badocchi are the only alternatives to Mamadi. We know nothing about Badocchi's readiness and we know Huff needs to show significant improvement.
But it's not just "by default" that Virginia wants major minutes from Mamadi. He has positive playmaking potential and if he can start to realize it on a consistent basis, he will make this team very strong. His ability to cover large swaths of floor, blow up screens with hedges and snuff drives with shotblocking will be needed without Wilkins to anchor the defense, and 10-12 points per game from post feeds would diversify the offense. More than that, though, his penchant for doing the unexpected can have an underappreciated psychological impact on games.
It's Mamadi's time. Wilkins is gone and Mamadi is the "next man up." If he can drop his foul and turnover rates by 30%, raise his defensive rebounding percentage, minutes per game and field goal attempts (with stable TS%), and start to play more by internalized recognition than conscious thought process, the Cavaliers are going to be almost impossible to beat.