Something Special

Samb’s D-League debut reinforces Pistons’ faith in his future

Cheikh Samb made his Ft. Wayne Mad Ants debut Thursday at Allen County War Memorial Coliseum.
Ron Hoskins (NBAE/Getty)
The distance from Fort Wayne to Auburn Hills might be only a few hours by car – a big reason why the Pistons switched their NBA Development League affiliate from Sioux Falls, S.D., since last season – but the gap between the NBA and the D-League is measured in light years by most basketball players.

Not so much for Cheikh Samb. When your journey to the NBA has already traversed continents and oceans – from Senegal by way of Spain – the leap from the D-League to basketball’s apex is no more imposing than crossing state lines from Indiana to Michigan.

It’s a journey the impossibly long basketball neophyte began Thursday night as Samb, the 23-year-old who only began playing the game five years ago, made his D-League debut with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants in a narrow loss to the Dakota Wizards. Samb played 40 minutes and fouled out, but not before scoring 12 points to go with 11 rebounds and six blocked shots.

“He was so happy last night – couldn’t be happier,” said Ryan Hoover, Pistons director of player development who accompanied Samb to Fort Wayne on Monday – the very day Samb obtained his first driver’s license, a reminder that basketball isn’t the only thing relatively foreign to Samb, who is listed at 7-foot-1 but has apparently grown an inch, Hoover said.

“He played 40 minutes and did a wonderful job. He showed great anticipation on blocking shots. A couple of his moves on the block – his footwork and his touch around the rim is fantastic. He grabbed offensive rebounds. He showed he’s not scared to get into somebody’s body and block shots. He had two blocks where guys literally tried to dunk on him and got it blocked back into their face.”

Shot-blocking is Samb’s most obvious skill right now, but what’s struck everyone from the organization is that there isn’t anything he can’t do. He runs well, displays a terrific outside shooting touch, makes his free throws, rebounds and defends. He needs to improve across the board and no one knows exactly what his ceiling might be, but when he reaches it there won’t be big holes in his game, as there are with many NBA big men who get by quite nicely by specializing in one or two areas.

After working with Samb over the summer, Pistons assistant coach Dave Cowens said he had every physical tool to succeed – it was just a matter of gauging his competitiveness and desire to maximize his skills.

“He’s just in the very beginning, but he’s got a chance,” Cowens said. “It’s all up to him. He’s certainly got the size, the length, the touch, the dexterity, the footwork – he’s got all that stuff.”

In the nearly six months since Samb began working with Cowens, the Pistons have come to believe he has the same enthusiasm for the game that another D-League success story, Amir Johnson, possesses.

“That’s the one thing that’s been so impressive,” Hoover said. “He does want to continue to get better and better and to grow. He’s such a sponge. We talked last night about the game and I hit on three or four things he needs to continue to work on – negative things – and he agreed. He soaks it all in, says, ‘You’re right, you’re right.’ He knows what he needs to do. At the end of the day, this kid just wants to play.”

It was Tony Ronzone, Pistons director of basketball operations and among the top handful of NBA executives with regard to international expertise, who first discovered Samb for the organization, prompting the 2006 draft night trade of Maurice Evans to the Lakers for Samb’s rights. After seeing Samb play in the Las Vegas Summer League in July 2006, Joe Dumars’ peers started buzzing his phone to learn of Samb’s history and inquire as to his trade availability. One Eastern Conference GM offered a player who’d been a frequent starter for his team the previous season. Ronzone says Africa is the world’s next explosive growth area, limited only by infrastructure and occasional language barriers.

When the Pistons acquired Samb, the original plan was to allow him to play two more seasons in the Spanish professional second division. But the progress Samb made both in adding bulk to his lanky frame – he’s put on roughly 35 pounds of muscle, though he still must add core and lower-body strength – and in basketball skills convinced Dumars to bring Samb to the United States this season and allow him to develop on the Pistons’ roster with a boost from D-League exposure.

“Joe and John (Hammond, vice president of basketball) have done a wonderful job of bringing in not only good people but guys that love to play the game and want to continue to grow and get better,” Hoover said. “This kid has improved in every aspect of his game, from his body to the skills he has that can’t be taught – his touch around the rim and his shot-blocking – that have improved just because he works on them so much. His language skills have improved. We had an English tutor working with him two times a week for a month and a half or so and she was wonderful for him.

“We’ve thrown so much at him so fast. He’s never had to drive and Monday he got his license and we drove down here. He has to know where the practice facility is here at Indiana Tech, which is about 25 minutes from his apartment, and the arena, which is 15 minutes away. Just from an everyday living standpoint – grocery stories, how things work here, what this means and that means – he’s had to absorb so much. And he’s been great about it. This is all new to him.”

During Samb’s D-League debut, Hoover and Pistons personnel director George David phoned in frequent updates to Dumars and Hammond, who while pleased weren’t surprised – not after they threw Samb into the heat of an NBA game on Nov. 16 at Los Angeles when the Pistons found themselves in a frontcourt numbers crunch. In 15 minutes, Samb scored two points on a confidently stroked baseline jumper, grabbed four rebounds and was credited with two blocked shots, though he appeared to get his hands on two others and alter twice as many more.

“It meant a lot,” Hoover said of that experience. “We just threw him into the game and he had no idea. The way he responded told us that this kid is just going to continue to get better and better every time he steps on the floor. What he did that night in Los Angeles put a smile on our faces and let us know we have something special.”