Futures market: Sekou’s first year gives outline of what he can be – that’s exciting but also challenging

Sekou Doumbouya
Sekou Doumbouya had the type of big swings in his rookie play to be expected of the NBA’s youngest player
Jesse D. Garrabrant (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

(EDITOR’S NOTE: During the suspension of the NBA’s season due to COVID-19, Pistons.com is looking at nine young players who either filled larger roles than anticipated or got their first NBA exposure this year, all of it as a result of the wave of injuries that struck the Pistons and led to an organizational decision to rebuild. So far we’ve examined Bruce Brown and Jordan Bone. Next up: Sekou Doumbouya.)

There’s always been a science to scouting, more so today with teeming available resources and a broad embrace of analytical applications. But there’s always been an art to it, as well, and as the field gets leveled on the science front with virtually every NBA organization upping its game in staffing and expertise, the art component becomes the true difference maker.

At the heart of the art of scouting is the ability to project – to look at a player at 18 or 19 and be able to conceptualize what he can become at 22 or 25. That starting point – 18 or 19 is when a large percentage of lottery-worthy players enter the marketplace – complicates the projection process compared to the days when players routinely spent four years in college. It’s easier to see what a 22-year-old can become than to project a teen’s arc.

The Pistons employed a good deal of projection in last June’s draft when they made Sekou Doumbouya, the youngest player drafted since 2005 when eligibility requirements changed, the 15th pick. Here’s a look at Doumbouya – what the Pistons saw, what they’ve experienced during his rookie season and how his first go-around helps them gauge where he’ll go from here.

PAST – Doumbouya, who won’t be 20 until December, put himself on the NBA radar as a 15-year-old when he helped France win the European U18 championship, starring in what was essentially a competition dominated by high school seniors. He turned professional at the same time, playing two years in France’s second division, then kept his prospect buzz at a Basketball Without Borders camp in conjunction with the 2018 NBA All-Star game in Los Angeles.

Doumbouya played one year in France’s top division with Limoges, a season interrupted by an injury to his right thumb that required surgery, sidelining him for nearly seven weeks at mid-season. Late in his season, Doumbouya – who averaged 7.8 points in 19 minutes over 27 regular-season games and 6.9 points in 15 minutes over eight EuroCup appearances – put together his best game: 34 points and nine rebounds against Paris-Levallois while hitting 5 of 7 3-point shots. That game came on May 18, 33 days before the 2019 draft.

On June 8, 12 days before the draft, Doumbouya held an individual workout in Frisco, Texas, attended by Ed Stefanski and Dwane Casey among many executives and coaches from across the NBA. He put on a dazzling shooting display. Stefanski and Casey left convinced Doumbouya would not be available with the 15th pick.

PRESENT – The Pistons had Doumbouya ranked as a top-10 prospect, perhaps a top-five prospect. Many expected Washington to draft Doumbouya with the ninth pick; the Wizards instead drafted Gonzaga’s Rui Hachimura. When Phoenix made the most surprising decision of the lottery – drafting fifth-year North Carolina senior Cameron Johnson, three months shy of five years older than Doumbouya, at 11 – the door opened for Doumbouya to fall to 15.

Despite their excitement over adding Doumbouya, the Pistons never anticipated he’d play as big a role as he wound up assuming in 2019-20. Injuries thinned the depth chart at power forward when Blake Griffin appeared in only18 games before needing season-ending knee surgery and Markieff Morris missed 13 games before being bought out once the Pistons chose a rebuilding path.

Doumbouya’s first two weeks – they came in early January with Griffin shut down and Morris sidelined – covering eight games were dazzling. Against a virtual who’s who of NBA forwards – Doumbouya went up against Kawhi Leonard, Draymond Green, LeBron James and Kevin Love (twice) in his first five games – he averaged 14.0 points and 5.3 rebounds while shooting 54.4 percent overall and 41.4 percent from the 3-point arc.

He capped it with his best game in a Pistons upset win at Boston: 24 points on 10 of 13 shooting.

The next seven games went another way: 3.9 points and 3.3 rebounds with 24.3 and 10.5 percent shooting numbers. Casey sat Doumbouya for one game, largely to allow him a mental reset, and he came back with 17 points and five boards in an overtime win over Denver on Super Bowl Sunday. But over the following month Doumbouya’s numbers went to 5.3 points and 3.3 rebounds on 28.4 percent shooting and 30.8 percent 3-point success. He would go long stretches in games without impact on either end.

Even as the Pistons over that month traded Andre Drummond and committed to a rebuilding effort, Casey was leery of continuing to give Doumbouya extended minutes if his performance didn’t merit them – more because of the potential for damaging Doumbouya’s confidence than anything else.

“No question. I’ve seen it,” he said. “I’ve had experience doing this. You could put a young player out there too quick. He’s not ready, you lose confidence – lose everything.”

FUTURE – How much closer are the Pistons to knowing what they have in Doumbouya than they were last June? In some respects, plenty; in others, not so much.

Those first eight games, against elite competition, happened. He made an impact against All-Stars as the NBA’s youngest player – and younger than all but one player apiece on the Michigan and Michigan State rosters. Eight games isn’t a huge sample size, but it’s not nothing. It’s enough to argue against it being a fluke.

Doumbouya’s size – at 6-foot-9 with an ideal frame and long arms, including a nearly 9-foot standing reach – and speed give him the tools to be a devastating transition force. He can be an effective inside-outside player given his athleticism and shooting potential. He’s got good hands and quick feet and can play above the rim, though strength gains will make him a more effective leaper from a standing start.

There shouldn’t be any area of Doumbouya’s game that can’t be developed to at least NBA average or better. That’s exciting. It’s also presents a challenge.

When a player has one or two standout qualities, it’s easy to identify a development program. So-called 3-and-D players are highly coveted but not especially versatile. They shoot open 3-pointers and defend their position.

Doumbouya needs more consistency with his shot mechanics and much of his off-season will be devoted to that quest. Casey, long a coach known to push players to peak conditioning levels, has said Doumbouya needs to get in better shape. He needs to get stronger, as all 19-year-olds this side of LeBron James must. Doumbouya has good ballhandling ability for a young big man but it needs improvement if he’s going to become more than a straight-line driver.

There’s no reason he can’t become a plus defender and gains in core strength will drive that process. After that, it’s just about focus – vigilance in staying in a defensive stance, for instance – and repetition.

The adage once popular among NBA coaches that a player makes his biggest leap between years one and two doesn’t really hold any more with players arriving at younger ages and being farther removed from fully realized than they once were. That said, it will be a big off-season for Doumbouya. As the Pistons enter the first stages of their rebuilding, no one on the current roster is more critical to how soon they can pass through to subsequent stages than their youngest player.

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