There are a lot of things to be excited about for this upcoming Virginia Basketball season. The continued growth of Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy. Jack Salt anchoring what will be another stout defense. De’Andre Hunter coming back for what could be an ACC Player of the Year type season.
But the continued growth of big man Mamadi Diakite is one of the most exciting things heading into the season. Now a redshirt third year, the expectations surrounding Diakite are high. He averaged 5.4 points and three rebounds in 15.6 minutes of action per game last season, playing behind Isaiah Wilkins (six points, 6.2 rebounds) and Jack Salt (3.4 points, 4.1 rebounds). Wilkins has now graduated, and Diakite will likely step into that role as a starter.
Diakite has taken the off-season seriously, spending time in Miami working with the trainers who helped Victor Oladipo become an NBA star and training with former UVA basketball player Mamadi Diane and Damin Altizer, the boys’ coach at St. Anne’s-Belfield. Altizer, a skills trainer who has worked with current Wahoos Ty Jerome and De’Andre Hunter, as well as the recently graduated Devon Hall. Things this summer...have been going well:
Everyone knows about this kid’s athleticism. This side of him is going to wake a few people up! pic.twitter.com/TzNi4uUwif— Damin Altizer (@DaminAltizer) October 3, 2018
I expect Diakite to start, and play around 25 minutes per game. That number could be potentially be higher if the Hoos can’t get any production out of reserves Jay Huff and redshirt first year Francesco Badocchi. There will certainly be times where Hunter plays the four with just one big man—either Salt or Diakite—and this is especially true if Coach Bennett can get meaningful minutes from Kihei Clark and Marco Anthony.
Diakite is more than capable to fill the rebounding void left by Wilkins, though Hunter and Jerome will likely see their rebounding numbers jump as well. Points-wise, Diakite should score in the neighborhood of eight per game, 10 if the Hoos are lucky. Out of necessity (read: less than stellar offensive big men), Virginia has gone away from a strong post presence with scoring. Look for that to change a bit this year with Diakite pulling more minutes.
Diakite is an offensively gifted player, something Virginia desperately needs in the post. He shot 57.7% from the floor and 78% from the free throw line. There’s diversity in his offensive approach, and he’s able to pull up for a smooth jumper or slam home a dunk. This offseason, he’s worked hard on his ball handling skills, and if the video above is any indication, it’s gone well.
Additionally, he’s improved year to year on defense. His 16 blocks were third on the team behind Wilkins (49) and Salt (22), but we know he’s able to get back and serve as a rim protector. Diakite plays with enthusiasm, and if his emotions can be held in check (as in he stays out of his head and avoids mistakes), that enthusiasm is a huge motivator for the Hoos.
The offseason has been a big one for Mamadi, and the coaching staff seems excited to see what comes of it. “I expect big things from Mamadi,” associate head coach Jason Williford told VirginiaSports.com. “I’ve seen the work he’s put in. I work with the bigs, so I am all in his corner. I want him to give us a big punch.”
Learning Tony Bennett’s system is not easy. In Diakite’s first two seasons, Coach Bennett talked a lot about him overthinking everything and not letting the game come to him. That’s improved immensely, as shown in the first of these two dunks:
“Those are the changes I’ve been having lately,” Diakite told me after that game against Clemson in the ACC tournament. “I’ve been having the feel of the game. Sometimes, like today with the reverse dunk, I knew that I had a feel with how the defender leaned on me. Before I would have tried to body him and go shoot it, whatever to my counter move. But, I took what he gave me.”
With the departure of Wilkins to graduation, the Hoos lose their best rebounder. Diakite’s offseason work focused on improving his rebounding skills as well as his physical strength going up to the basket. Both will be crucial for Virginia this season. Tony Bennett hasn’t had a real offensive threat down low since Anthony Gill graduated in 2016, and Diakite may be the best candidate since then.
Diakite also needs to work on his fouling as he led the team with a a 5.6 fouls per 40 minutes per KenPom. Yes, his was worse than Salt’s (3.7). Depth will be one of the most limiting factors for the Hoos this season, and spending time on the bench in foul trouble will force Coach Bennett to make some changes.
Best 2017-18 Game
Virginia traveled to Syracuse to take on the Orange, and Diakite went 5-for-7 from the field and 2-for-2 from the line for a season-high 12 points in the 59-44 Cavalier win. Diakite had 10 of his 12 points in the second half as he feasted on the Syracuse zone. In the second half, he had three dunks, a jumper in the paint, and both free throws. His final two dunks came in the last 2:30 of the game as Syracuse pulled within 11 points of the Hoos and were looking to make a late push.
Best 2017-18 Play
Mamadi is known for his soaring dunks, but picking just one spectacular dunk is tough. That said, the jam that stands out came against No. 12 North Carolina in Charlottesville as the Hoos took down the Heels 61-49. With just under 10 minutes to play in the first half, Devon Hall made an extra pass that found Diakite for a two handed jam that put the Hoos up for good. That’s not the dunk I’m talking about, though.
On the next play, Diakite stole the ball off of a lazy pass near mid-court, took several steps, and started his leap just a step inside the free throw line. You can watch the play(s) here (fast forward to the 1:56 mark of the video).
This picture sums it up perfectly as Diakite floated to the basket for a shattering dunk:
Year: Redshirt Junior
2017-18 PPG: 5.4
2017-18 RPG: 3.0
Languages Spoken: English, French, Malinke, Soussou, and Peul