Sekou gets a good start on what the Pistons hope is a strong finish to his second season
Chris Schwegler (NBAE/Getty)
It wasn’t quite as intoxicating as the January 2020 night he scored 24 points to spark an improbable win at Boston and Markieff Morris proclaimed Sekou Doumbouya “The Prince.”
“You’ll see,” Morris said that night in the cramped visitors quarters at TD Garden. “In about five years, he’s going to have Detroit on his back. I promise you that.”
But Thursday’s 14-point performance matched Doumbouya’s season high and underscored some of the strengths – also some of the weaknesses and other areas where progress has been made – that enticed the Pistons to pick him 15th in the June 2019 draft when he was 18 and eligible to be drafted by a mere eight days. He’s still younger than all of his teammates except 19-year-old rookies Killian Hayes – like Doumbouya, a French citizen – and Isaiah Stewart.
A confluence of events – from the pandemic that robbed a raw young player who needed development more than anyone of a typical off-season program to a series of nagging injuries, including two stints in concussion protocol – has stalled Doumbouya’s succession to princely status in the truncated 2020-21 NBA season.
He goes into the season’s final nine games averaging 4.2 points and 2.2 rebounds in 14 minutes over the 49 games in which he’s appeared. Thursday was his fifth start of the season. There’s a strong likelihood he’ll get a few more over the final two weeks as the Pistons are determined to get to season’s end with a heathy roster so the summer is spent on player development rather than rehabilitation.
When the Pistons signed Jerami Grant in free agency, Doumbouya began the season caught in a logjam at power forward behind Blake Griffin and Grant. When Griffin sat, the Pistons gave Grant the lion’s share of minutes at that spot and since Griffin’s exit for Brooklyn, Saddiq Bey has often swung to power forward when Grant rests. Then the Pistons wanted to get a good look at Tyler Cook, playing on two 10-day contracts, before deciding to offer him a deal for the rest of this season and beyond.
“There’s (only) so many minutes to play at the four and he got caught up in that,” Casey said before Thursday’s encouraging Doumbouya showing. “And then he had the concussion thing. So he’s been kind of in and out, up and down. These last 10 games, we want to give him a good dose of time – not give it to him, but play a good dose of minutes and compete to get back in the groove.”
Doumbouya’s 29-plus minutes of playing time was a season high. He hit 5 of 10 shots, though just 1 of 5 from the 3-point arc, slightly lowering his season mark to 24.2 percent – well below league average. That’s the most obvious area where improvement must come for Doumbouya to cement himself as part of the young nucleus alongside the four rookies – Hayes, Stewart, Bey and Saben Lee – that general manager Troy Weaver has dubbed the “Core Four.” But Thursday was a solid step forward for Doumbouya.
“I’ve always said he’s an elite runner on the floor and an elite cutter,” Casey said. “That’s an NBA skill and he has a knack for it. His 3-point shooting – he’s a good 3-pointer shooter; he missed some wide-open looks. But I thought he had a good overall take. Had the opportunity, took advantage of it.”
Doumbouya’s strengths remain his cutting instincts – the best the Pistons have had since Reggie Bullock – and his end-to-end speed. He can take the ball off the defensive glass and create transition scoring chances. He’s flashed potential as a scorer off the dribble, including two eye-opening drives for baskets in Thursday’s game, with a flair for the Euro-step.
To weaponize the gifts he has right now, Casey says it’s paramount that Doumbouya push himself to peak physical conditioning, something that the frequent trips to the inactive list have made difficult around the injuries.
“I thought he came into camp lean and mean,” he said. “I don’t know what his weight is, body fat is, but just make sure you get lean and mean and stay lean and mean. Just the greatest conditioning he can possibly get in where he can do what he does best, which is run the floor.”
Doumbouya also has made noticeable progress defensively this season. Casey noted early that, even as a teen, Doumbouya had superb natural strength.
“Defensively, he’s been solid,” he said. “Sekou is a very strong young man. He bodies up. The key word with him is consistency – getting consistent minutes and being consistent in those situations.”
Part of Doumbouya’s contributions defensively come in his grasp of Casey’s system – as the only player still around for the 2019-20 season – his basketball IQ and his willingness to give it voice.
“Sekou is one of our best talkers,” Casey said. “He’s been in the system. He understands it. I see the carryover from last year to this year and he’s out there explaining to guys. That’s good to see, also.”
Doumbouya has an ebullient air and a quick wit about him that endears him to teammates and he’s been a release valve for his more stoic countryman, Hayes.
“They both speak French. They probably vibe a little off of that,” Casey said. “Sekou is one of our smarter players on the court. He knows what to do – doesn’t always do it himself, but he knows what’s going on. He’s a voice of reason out there on the floor, talking to Killian. Even when Killian was out, you could see those two talking about the game. He’s been a big help to Killian in that first year. Both of them are great kids and he’s been a big help to him.”
Now it’s about helping himself by putting together a final two weeks of the season that restore the same luster to Doumbouya he exuded after a magical two-week window that culminated in an upset win at Boston more than a year ago.