Sekou’s summer surge the update Detroit Pistons hoped to hear for French teen
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The coaching axiom that NBA players undergo their biggest growth spurt between year one and year two was born in an era when they arrived with four years of college basketball under their belts.
It doesn’t hold much water these days as players in various stages of development flower on wildly divergent timetables, though Sekou Doumbouya is giving Dwane Casey growing confidence that he’s due for a big jump in his second year in the NBA – even though his first year was cut 16 games short by the March 11 suspension amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’ve been as hard on him as anyone,” Casey said recently, “pushing him with an arm around him. I know how important this summer development is for him. He’s done a heck of a job with his body, in the weight room, conditioning. His intensity level with his workouts has been great. That’s been very, very impressive as far as his work since he’s been here.”
The Pistons knew what they were getting when they made Doumbouya the youngest player drafted in June 2019. He qualified for that summer’s draft by a mere week with a Dec. 23 birthday and the stipulation that anyone drafted in 2019 had to turn 19 in that calendar year. They anticipated more exaggerated ups and downs than even a typical rookie would endure – not only given Doumbouya’s age but his adaptation to a new country and culture while attempting to expand rudimentary English-language skills.
The full immersion in the G League experience the Pistons anticipated for Doumbouya had to be amended in late December when injuries to Blake Griffin – that one was season-ending – and Markieff Morris accelerated the rookie’s baptism. And it came not by fire but inferno.
Doumbouya’s first five starts saw him go head to head with Kawhi Leonard, Draymond Green, LeBron James, Kevin Love and Love again, exceeding all reasonable expectations by averaging 12 points and 5.9 rebounds on 49 percent shooting while holding his own defensively.
He logged two exceedingly encouraging weeks, capped by a dazzling 24-point performance in an upset win at Boston on Jan. 15.
“That’s ‘The Prince,’ ” Morris said, cocking his head in the direction of Doumbouya to his right in the visitors locker room at TD Garden that night. “You’ll see. In about five years, he’s going to have Detroit on his back. I promise you that.”
Doumbouya’s veteran teammates were struck by two qualities in the French teen: his sense that he belonged and his ability to score despite his raw skills and unfamiliarity with NBA personnel.
“He’s a great player. He works hard at his craft,” said Bruce Brown, who befriended Doumbouya as Summer League teammates in July 2019. “He tries to get better every day and he believes in himself – great confidence in himself.”
“I’m just surprised at the way he’s not scared of matchups,” Derrick Rose said. “LeBron, Kawhi, Paul George, Draymond, K-Love. Person after person, but he doesn’t care. That’s what this league is about – no boys allowed.”
“That boy gets buckets in his sleep,” veteran Tony Snell said of Doumbouya.
But even as Doumbouya rode that high, Casey knew the world would turn over on his precocious rookie as it does for all NBA newcomers. It took Doumbouya the next nine games to cumulatively exceed his 24-point outing at Boston, prompting Casey to give Doumbouya one game off to regain his bearings. There were peaks and valleys the rest of the way, including a 17-point outing in a Super Bowl Sunday win over Denver, when the season abruptly ended in March.
Casey planned a rigorous and well-rounded summer apprenticeship for Doumbouya but improvisation has been the norm as the Pistons have had to adjust to pandemic restrictions that still limit them to individual work with a single coach per player. This month’s decision that the NBA will allow the Pistons and the seven other teams not part of the Orlando bubble a team camp came as welcome news.
“Hopefully, this will give us an opportunity for guys to go competitively, five on five, three on three, whatever the number is,” Casey said. “That’s so important to get some growth, especially for a kid like Sekou going into his second year.”
Casey has monitored – and extolled – the summer progress of several other Pistons young players, including Luke Kennard, Svi Mykhailiuk, Bruce Brown and two-way players Louis King and Jordan Bone. But no one’s development is more critical than Doumbouya’s. With the Pistons entering a rebuilding phase, he – and whoever is chosen with the No. 7 pick in the 2020 draft, whenever it comes – becomes an even bigger piece of the franchise’s future.
“One thing with him, as all young players, is getting their body right,” Casey said. “Getting ready for the rigors of the NBA, the physical contact. He’s taken a big step toward that. He’s gotten rid of some baby fat, getting more muscle tone. Our strength coaches have done a good job with him on that and he’s worked hard. That is a big step for him. Getting a better feel with his handles – he’s done a good job with that, working on his ballhandling.”
As much promise as the Pistons saw in flashes with Doumbouya as a rookie, they know he has miles to go to reach his immense potential. What they’ve seen from him this summer – the demeanor, the hunger – tells them he’s got a real shot to do so.
His veteran teammates were convinced of it that night in Boston.
“He’s a great kid,” Morris said. “He wants to learn. He’s going to go hard. One thing for sure – he’s not scared. He doesn’t really know what the NBA is, but he’s going to compete every night. He carries himself like an older guy. As a vet, been in the league for a couple of years, you want to see that from a rookie. That’s my guy.”