Pistons blueprint for Sekou includes G League time – ‘It’s part of his grind’
Rocky Widner (NBAE/Getty)
NEW YORK – Players entering the NBA at 19 or 20 has been a thing for nearly 30 years, but the public expectation that No. 1 draft picks should immediately make an impact remains from the days when prospects arrived only after spending four years lugging books to ivy-covered classroom buildings.
And so it is that Pistons fans become angry when Sekou Doumbouya is sent to the G League for a game or two – angry or worse, fearful that the Pistons didn’t get a foundational piece for their rebuilding effort when they spent the 15th pick last June on the French teen.
No other American major professional sport carries such expectations. Football players must be three years removed from high school to be eligible for the NFL draft. Baseball prospects routinely spend three, four or five years in the minor leagues before arriving at Comerica Park – often even if they’ve come from college baseball. The hockey player who arrives before his 20th birthday is far more the exception than the norm.
Dwane Casey has been around the NBA long enough that he was on the ground floor of early entry when he joined Seattle’s staff in 1994. That was the year the Pistons drafted Grant Hill at No. 3 – after four years at Duke.
And take it from Casey – there’s such a thing as impeding a young player’s development by throwing him into the fire before he’s ready.
“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.”
The Pistons let Doumbouya marinate in the G League experience for the first two-plus months of the season. But when injuries cut to the bone in early January, Casey had no choice. Doumbouya spent two dizzying weeks achieving eye-opening success, scoring in double figures in seven of eight games against a who’s who of NBA forwards: LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Draymond Green and Kevin Love over his first five games alone.
Over those eight games, Doumbouya averaged 14.0 points and 5.3 rebounds while shooting with great efficiency: 54.4 percent overall, 41.4 percent from the 3-point arc.
Reality hit back hard over the next seven games: 3.9 points and 3.3 rebounds with 24.3 and 10.5 percent shooting numbers. Casey sat Doumbouya for one game and he came back with 17 points and five rebounds in an overtime win over Denver on Super Bowl Sunday, but the surge was short-lived. Over the following month, Doumbouya averaged 5.3 points and 3.3 rebounds on 28.4 percent shooting and 30.8 percent from the 3-point line.
But the Pistons needed his minutes most nights with the roster ravaged by injury. With the depth chart stabilized to some degree, Casey saw an opportunity late last week to send Doumbouya back to the G League – with the intention of bringing him back in time for Saturday’s game with Utah. Doumbouya scored 30 points, grabbed eight rebounds and hit the game-winning shot in Friday’s Grand Rapids Drive win at Portland (Maine).
“I just play free,” Doumbouya said of the more stress-free G League environment.. “I play my game. I don’t have to worry about nothing. I just play.”
He followed up with one of his more encouraging games with the Pistons 24 hours later.
“Sekou competed,” Casey said after Doumbouya’s nine-point, three-rebound outing in 20 minutes against Utah, during which he hit 4 of 6 shots while taking only one 3-pointer. “He played hard. He played well. He had a couple of breakdowns for (Utah) threes there in that stretch, but you expect that from young kids.”
By the eye test, Doumbouya was simply more active and involved against Utah, using his size and athleticism to attack the rim a few times and running the floor with the rigor evident in that early-January stretch.
That’s what Casey most wanted to see.
“I thought his intensity, his approach, was great,” he said. “Like all young players, consistency is the key word, but I was impressed with the way he played.”
Sunday at New York wasn’t quite as impressive, though Doumbouya started strong before settling for four points and a rebound in 16 minutes. It was Doumbouya’s third game in three nights in three different cities. By his own admission, he felt heavy-legged before Sunday’s tipoff. That was very much by design.
“It’s part of his training,” Casey said. “It’s part of his grind that he’s learning. Sekou’s going to be fine.”
It will be an equally demanding off-season ahead for Doumbouya – a summer of skills development, physical and strength conditioning and playing basketball to develop “callouses,” as Casey puts it.
“He’s still a young kid. Still got a lot of growing to do. The G League is a great learning experience. It’s even more of a grind when he’s got to go down there play, come back and play. That’s the program. That’s the blueprint that we’re looking for for him – him and all of our young guys. Get as much basketball as they can stand.”