Sekou’s ups, downs: ‘One day you’re the pigeon, the next day you’re the statue’
Joe Murphy (NBAE/Getty)
MEMPHIS – The Pistons took Sekou Doumbouya enthusiastically with the 15th pick last June with full knowledge that his journey wouldn’t be an uninterrupted ascendancy to stardom.
When you’re the youngest player in the NBA – the youngest player since eligibility rules were amended after the 2005 draft, in fact – it might be a wild ride.
Dwane Casey, who oversaw a remarkable number of player development success stories during his run in Toronto, predicted there’d be plenty of highs and lows after the Pistons drafted Doumbouya still six months from his 19th birthday last June.
Doumbouya proved him right in his first month since injuries rushed him into the rotation. His first four games came against NBA All-Stars – Kawhi Leonard, Draymond Green, LeBron James and Kevin Love – and Doumbouya held his own, scoring in double figures in his first four starts and seven of his first eight, capped by a season-high 24 points in a Jan. 15 win at Boston.
Then came seven straight games without scoring in double figures, capped by a scoreless performance in eight minutes last week of a loss to Brooklyn in which the Pistons were outscored 28-8 during Doumbouya’s time.
That prompted Casey to sit Doumbouya for the next game, Friday’s loss to Toronto, “to breathe,” he said.
“Sometimes it takes a young guy a chance to step back and watch and see,” Casey said after the next day’s practice. “We’ll see how he plays tomorrow.”
Back in the starting lineup Sunday against Denver, Doumbouya scored 10 first-quarter points and was the only starter Casey didn’t pull as the Pistons fell behind 28-7 to start the game. He scored all 17 of his points in the first half.
Bruce Brown, who befriended Doumbouya immediately in Las Vegas last July as Summer League teammates, was in his ear after last week’s low ebb in Brooklyn.
“I just told him to be aggressive, just play his game,” Brown said. “I think he was thinking too much out there. I know exactly what he’s thinking because I was in that state of mind last year. I just told him to go out there, play his game and he’ll be all right.”
“Play hard,” Casey said when asked when he wanted to see from Doumbouya after the one-game respite. “That’s the thing I think he forgot about and we had to remind him. Like most young kids, they have to go through it. They think this is just jumping on a nice airplane and going to a nice hotel and have a buffet before, after the game. It’s not that. It’s about earning your stripes.”
Casey is fully cognizant of the enormous change Doumbouya has experienced in the last eight months, jumping several notches up in competition from France to the NBA and living in a foreign land while trying to get by with rudimentary English-speaking skills and living as a teen in a decidedly adult world.
He’s also aware that sudden success can be head-turning.
“That’s the issue as a coach you have to fight when everybody anoints you as the next coming and you know – from your heart and your experience – that they’re not ready yet. There’s no doghouse. It’s just a teaching moment for him. Not just him; all the young guys. If they don’t compete and play the right way, the only way you learn in this league sometimes is sit back and watch.”
Even as Doumbouya went scoreless in the second half of the win over Denver, Casey saw good things from him. Again in Monday’s loss at Memphis – when Doumbouya shot 2 of 15, missed all 10 of his shots inside the 3-point arc and had five shots blocked – Casey saw the motor he’d hoped to see.
“Sometimes young players feel like they think they’re tired and they’re not tired,” Casey said of Doumbouya’s experience Monday with the back-to-back starts. “It’s a great learning experience for the young man. One day you’re the pigeon, the next day you’re the statue. If you don’t bring it each night, the guys in this league will hand it back to you.”