From Senegal to New Jersey, Samba Diallo’s journey to UMass is a long one By: Thomas Johnston

Samba Diallo is returning to the basketball court for the first time in over a year, but his nerves are low. He doesn’t feel the pressure of being a freshman at a Division I school, or the contingent of UMass fans in attendance for an exhibition against Westfield State who have high expectations for the Minutemen this season.

It doesn’t take long for Diallo to have an impact on the game. His long, lengthy arms that stretch down near his knees give ball handlers issues, and his athleticism shows up when he skies for rebounds.

In the second half of play, Diallo begins to exhibit his offensive skills. With just under nine minutes remaining, the 6-foot-7 wing catches the ball at the top of the key, fakes to his left and blasts past his defender. In the paint await two Westfield defenders, but Diallo makes quick work of them, euro-stepping past one before elevating over two other defenders to finish at the rim with his left hand.

Elite athleticism can’t be coached, but the more impressive aspect is the skill and footwork needed to complete a move like this. For the native of Rufisque, Senegal, Diallo has only been playing organized basketball for three years, but already has the talent to be an instant impact player for UMass this season.

When UMass coach Matt McCall recruited Diallo, they knew they were getting a player with significant upside and room for growth.

Growing up in Senegal, Diallo never played organized basketball. He would play pick-up games everyday after school on outdoor courts, playing for hours on end, but was never properly coached or taught how to play the game.

His cousin went to school at Pope John in Sparta Township, New Jersey and was talking to him about trying to come over to America to pursue his dream of playing college basketball. He applied to the school before his sophomore year and got in touch with the basketball coach, and after he was admitted, he moved to the U.S.

The adjustment to life in America and playing organized basketball was difficult at first. Diallo knew how to speak English, but wasn’t completely fluent and it took him time to adjust to how fast everyone talks.

He also had to adjust to the speed of the game. The pick-up games were far more physical in Senegal than the game is here, but the American game is much faster than what he was used to. It took him a few games to adjust, but ultimately found the right balance between the physical play and speed.

He feels the pickup games back home have helped him be a better player in the organized game.

“It helps me a lot because going there, the physicality is everywhere you go,” Diallo said. “I’ve always been known as someone who plays hard, no matter what the situation is, no matter what happens, so that helps me a lot. Coming here, getting used to the speed of the game was a little bit of a struggle for me at the beginning of high school, but after that as you go, you get used to it.”

The adjustment wasn’t just in the speed of the game. He had to learn all the little nuances, from when to cut, where to be on the offensive and defensive end and learning how to play in an organized offensive system.

After he was adjusted, Diallo began to showcase his skills. He began playing AAU basketball, a game slightly less organized than high school ball, but allows athletic players to play in space and showcase their talent.

During an AAU game in Las Vegas his junior year, Diallo went driving down the lane and tried to make a quick stop when he felt a shooting pain in his knee. He knew right away something was wrong, and an MRI confirmed that he had torn his ACL.

For a player who was just in his second year playing organized basketball, the injury was a tough setback. He was just beginning to get comfortable with the game, but would have to miss his entire senior season with the injury.

“It was pretty tough,” Diallo said.” I put a lot of work into that, going to rehab, listening to doctors even though sometimes you get mad and frustrated seeing everybody going up and down and you’re sitting on the bench watching. That was upsetting, but I learned a lot.”

Diallo wasn’t nervous for the first game as a Minuteman because of the injury. He knows to enjoy every second he gets to be back out on the court, treating it like he is back in Rufisque on the outdoor court playing pickup games with his friends.

“I’m looking at it right now like, you just have to take every day like it’s your last,” Diallo said.

“Once I step on the court I’m going to give everything I have because I don’t know what’s going to happen in five minutes. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the next 10 minutes. The time that I have, I would give everything I have and be happy with the results.”

As a guy with the amount of ability Diallo has, McCall knew he was getting a player who would be an integral part of the team for the foreseeable future, and would only continue to grow as a player.

“He hasn’t played in 15, 16 months whatever it is,” McCall said. “He has a tremendous amount of growth in front of him. He’s only going to continue to get better and better.

“In recruiting, you really try to identify guys like that. Whether it’s Carl Pierre who basically came in here as a 17, 18-year-old and Sy Chatman who walked on campus and turned 18 during the summer session. Those guys have upside. They’re just going to continue to grow and grow and grow. I look at Samba the same way. He hasn’t been playing the game that long but he’s got some god given ability and some instincts to get some stuff into the game. He’s going to continue to get better.”

McCall’s defense requires players to be able to switch and defend multiple spots, and there might not be a better guy doing that than Diallo. His long wingspan mixed with his quick footwork make him a terror on the defensive end, something he takes a lot of pride in.

While his offensive game continues to develop, Diallo is focused on making an impact on the defensive end every time he steps on the court.

“I see myself on the defensive side and bringing intensity and whatever the coach needs me to do,” Diallo said. “There’s a lot of switching on the ball screens and I’m able to guard the guards, wings and I’m able to guard multiple positions. My defensive ability will help a lot.”

When McCall was recruiting Diallo, the thing that impressed him the most was his competitiveness and ferociousness when he took the court. The competitive nature he developed on the courts in Senegal have translated well to the American game, making him somebody McCall can count on to give 100 percent effort every second he is in the game.

“He can guard multiple spots, offensively, he’s very versatile with his ability to pass,” McCall said. “He’s a terrific player. He should be a guy where if the other team has a guard that’s cooking, we can put on him and really cause problems because of his length and athleticism.”

Diallo takes pride in being a coachable player, listening and absorbing all the information and teaching points the coaches put in front of him.

“I love competing and that’s who I am,” Diallo said. “I don’t play around when I’m on the court. I go in there and do what I have to do and whatever the coach says, I’m going to go do it.”

It’s only Diallo’s third year of competitive basketball — with every game that he puts on a UMass jersey, improvement is inevitable.

Thomas Johnston can be reached at tjohnston@umass.edu and followed on Twitter @TJ__Johnston.

(Photos by Katherine Mayo/Daily Collegian)

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