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Sekou Doumbouya is working to make a name for himself ... and someone else

Rookie big man finding his way in NBA as he works into Pistons' rotation

Sekou Smith

Sekou Smith

It was supposed to be a simple greeting. A quick introduction brokered by Detroit Pistons Senior Director of Public Relations Cletus Lewis at a Saturday morning shootaround.

“Sekou (Doumbouya), I’d like for you to meet Sekou (Smith),” Lewis said to the 19-year-old rookie from France who didn’t process what was being said.

“Sekou?” he said, wide-eyed. “Your name is Sekou?”

Absolutely, I told him. “My name has been Sekou a lot longer than yours,” I joked as we both laughed as word spread around the court, leading to Doumbouya’s teammates getting in on the fun.

“It’s Sekou and Sekou,” Pistons forward Christian Wood said, “it’s like [hip-hop artists Lil] Baby and [Da] Baby. This is crazy.”

Well, not exactly. Doumbouya is a foot taller at 6-foot-9 and 245 pounds, not to mention nearly 20 years younger. But I appreciated the pop culture reference.

You’ve heard that saying, “it’s not about the Xs and Os, it’s about the Jimmys and Joes.” Not when you have a first name as unique as ours.

For once, it’s about the Sekous — and as far as I can tell he’s the first player to grace an NBA roster with the same first name as yours truly.

I’d done my research early on Doumbouya. When his name popped up two years ago on a prospect list for the 2019 Draft, I was intrigued.

I started lobbying immediately for him to be the No. 1 overall pick just so I could hear Commissioner Adam Silver say it, “with the first overall pick of the 2019 NBA Draft, the New Orleans Pelicans select Sekou …”

Zion Williamson interrupted those plans, of course. But a man can dream.

And who could blame me? Who hasn’t grown up with wild thoughts about hearing the commissioner calling your name at the Draft?

Sure, it was Sekou Oumar Doumbouya and not Sekou Kimathi-Sinclair Smith whose name was called. But one Sekou in uniform is better than none.

Pistons coach Dwane Casey, who I’ve known for years, didn’t need any pronunciation help with his young big man’s name. I’ve been pestering him for years. It helps that Doumbouya has emerged recently as a factor for the Pistons since joining the team from its G League affiliate in, of all places, my hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Injuries, particularly Blake Griffin’s, created an opportunity for Doumbouya to make the transition from the Grand Rapids Drive’s main attraction to a regular in Casey’s rotation just before Christmas.

The fireworks began began immediately. But things got real a few weeks ago, when young Sekou announced himself as a certified viral sensation.

Doumbouya is one of the main projects in Casey’s player development program in Detroit, the same one he implemented and utilized in Toronto, where guys like Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby and so many others helped the Raptors grind away to a championship last season.

“In today’s game, you better have a good player development program because of the age of these young guys like Sekou, who are coming into the league as teenagers from around the globe,” Casey said. “Before, you could get four-year college guys if you wanted to and now you’re getting guys who are just turning 19.”

Doumbouya’s time with the Drive was invaluable. He was allowed to ease his way into his NBA career, 157 miles west of Little Caesars Arena.

“It was great in Grand Rapids, I do like five or six months there and I get comfortable and just focus on basketball,” Doumbouya said in his still-a-bit-choppy English. “It reminded me of where I’m from in France, a little bit cold, not too much movement, but nice. So I [was] comfortable.”

He didn’t need long to make the adjustment. A graceful athlete, soccer was his first sport, with a rugged body that almost seems too big for the baby-faced Doumbouya, the physicality in the G League and NBA is to his liking.

“That’s really when I started to get my confidence back,” he said of the G League.

It’s life off the court that has required the biggest adjustment. The constant travel involved in an NBA season — different cities at all hours of the day and night, seen mostly from buses to and from airports, hotels and arenas — can be a whirlwind for anyone, but especially a teenager in a foreign land.

He just told me to ‘be patient, stay patient. You know what you are doing.’

Sekou Doumbouya on Pascal Siakam’s advice

“There’s so much to learn, especially for a rookie,” Doumbouya said. “You gotta take care of yourself, take care of your body and still keep up. It’s a lot.”

Doumbouya hasn’t hesitated to lean on his teammates and the network of players around the league he already knew, including Siakam as well as members of the French National Team, for advice on how to navigate the opening stages of his journey.

“I know Siakam and we talk about it,” he said. “He just told me to ‘be patient, stay patient. You know what you are doing. Do your work and be ready when your chance comes.’ And I was ready… I knew when I got the call up I had to be ready to work.”

Casey said the G League stint was “huge” in Doumbouya’s preparation for the workload he’s assumed.

I reminded Doumbouya that he’s just getting started, that I have Air Jordan’s older than him and that he’s not just representing his birth nation of Guinea and his beloved France, but also the other Sekou he’d just met and any others out there like us.

“I got it,” he said, laughing as he walked to the team bus. “Don’t worry, I got it.”

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Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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