The Pistons' first-round pick has mighty aspirations as an 18-year-old from Guinea.

By Charlotte Wilder
June 21, 2019

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BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Right after the Detroit Pistons drafted Sekou Doumbouya at No. 15, his cousin handed him the flag of Guinea. Doumbouya immediately tied it around his shoulders, and now the gift billows out behind him as he walks through the hallways of Barclays Center. As he approaches the stage for his first official NBA press conference, he adjusts his new Pistons hat.

In addition to his cape and flat-brim, the 6’9” 18-year-old is wearing black patent loafers, black, slim-cut tuxedo pants, a red and black jacket custom-made from woven African fabric, a black shirt and a black velvet bow. A delicate diamond bracelet sparkles on his wrist. Where some people would have monograms on the cuffs of their shirt, Doumbouya’s feature an embroidered flag of France on one and the flag of Guinea on the other.

“And now I need the U.S.A. on here, too,” he says.

It was unclear where Doumbouya was going to end up after Thursday’s draft; most mocks had him going to the Wizards at No. 9, but some had him as early as the seventh pick and others as late as 14. He never worried, though, and didn’t check his phone to see if any NBA reporters knew where his new home might be. On the red carpet earlier, he was remarkably calm for someone about to experience the biggest moment of his life. He answered reporters’ questions in his soft voice and accented English (he speaks English well, but French is still easiest). He didn’t fidget or shift his weight.

“The goal for me was to be drafted, so why would I be stressed? I’m here,” Doumbouya says in French. “I’m only going to be nervous about things involving my family, but I’m never going to be nervous about basketball.”

Doumbouya, the youngest player in this year’s draft, was born in 2000 in Conakry, Guinea but moved to Orleans, France when he was a year old with his mother and three sisters. His father stayed behind as a soldier in the Guinean army. At the NBA station where players dedicate their draft night to someone, Doumbouya chose his dad, who still lives in Africa and couldn’t attend the draft. But the two talk often and were in touch all day. If Doumbouya weren’t a player in the NBA, he’d want to be a soldier like his father.

“Far from the eyes, but close to the heart,” Doumbouya says of his dad.

Doumbouya’s mother and sisters, as well as his agent, his former coach Benoist Burguet, and his girlfriend are here tonight. Doumbouya’s mother gives an emphatic “oooh, yes” when asked if she’s the one got him into sports. Her son grew up swimming and playing soccer, but stood 6’2” by the time he was 12. Height like that is a flame to which basketball coaches flock like moths, so when Burguet first spotted Doumbouya, he suggested he join his team.

As soon as Doumbouya picked up a ball, it became clear he was a natural. He played at The National Institute for Sport and Physical Education on the outskirts of Paris—the same youth academy that produced Tony Parker, Evan Fournier, and Boris Diaw—for two years, then professionally in France for the past three. He started out in the country’s second-tier division and then played for Limoges CSP, a Pro A team, during the 2018-19 season.

“I’ve seen him mature so much over these last few years, playing professionally in France,” Burguet says. “He’s had to grow up really quickly.”

In 2018, Doumbouya attended Basketball Without Borders, a program the NBA has run since 2001. The development camps take place during the offseason in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas, where promising kids from their respective regions come to work with NBA coaches, players, and personnel. The most highly touted prospects score invites to BWB Global, which takes place during All-Star weekend. Many of the league’s best international players came up through the BWB program. Doumbouya is close with his fellow Frenchmen Frank Ntilikina, who was the Knicks’ first-round pick in 2017 and participated in several BWB camps. Joel Embiid is a BWB alum, as are Pascal Siakam and Marc Gasol.

Doumbouya has been on the NBA’s radar for several years, according to Chris Ebersole, the NBA’s director of international basketball operations. But it wasn’t until he showed up at BWB Global that the league started to realize the charisma he brings to the court.

“He always had a big smile on his face,” Ebersole says. “And for a camp that’s in the middle of a really busy club season, after flying halfway across the world to participate in? It’s easy for energy levels to wane. And that’s never an issue for Sekou. He’s an absolute joy to be around in terms of personality.

“That attitude, enthusiasm, and positive approach has served him well so far, and he’ll contribute right away to whichever team is lucky enough to get him.”

Detroit is that team, and Doumbouya (who describes himself as “very chill, always smiling”) can’t wait to get there. Even though he doesn’t own many cold-weather clothes yet, he’s nothing but positive about this next step. He thinks there’s a huge amount of room for him to grow with the Pistons, and he also thinks they need someone like him — a versatile power forward who can play defense.

“It’s the perfect place for me,” he says. “I know that I’m young and I’m going to make mistakes, but I’m going to grow and they trust me.”

International players are thriving in the NBA: A record-setting eight former BWB athletes were selected in Thursday’s draft. At the start of the 2018 season, team rosters had a combined 108 players from outside the U.S. representing 42 countries and territories. The Raptors, the league’s only Canadian team, took home the championship a little over a week ago. Siakim draped a Cameroon flag over his shoulders after the win. As he hoisted the trophy above his head, he said to ESPN reporter Doris Burke, “It’s my first rodeo,” in his accented English. Afterward, with a pair of ski goggles strapped to his head to protect his eyes from champagne, he went on SportsCenter with Scott Van Pelt, still rocking his flag cape. He was a vision.

Tonight, Doumbouya invokes Siakim as he sits at his presser with the flag of Guinea still wrapped around him. It’s fitting, seeing as Siakim is the player who’s inspired him most.

“We almost have the same dimensions and I play like him,” Doumbouya says. “It’s a big inspiration for the African people, African players. Yeah, I’m proud of that.”

When asked if he’ll win a championship like his role model, he crosses his fingers and grins.

In NBA history, 13 No. 1 picks have been foreigners. Players like Patrick Ewing, Tim Duncan, Yao Ming, Kyrie Irving, Ben Simmons and many others have come from other countries. Kids across the world wear jerseys with international players’ names on the back and U.S. cities on the front.

“Those guys want to give back,” Ebersole says. “Siakim and Embiid went back to BWB Africa camps to coach recently, and just their excitement around performing at the highest level and being stars is great to see. They’re able to flourish in that role and understand their place in the game, the position they hold and the impact they can have in their home countries and beyond.”

Doumbouya now joins their ranks. His post-Draft duties are almost done Thursday night, but one thing remains: the official NBA photo shoot. He stands against a golden backdrop dribbling a basketball. With a ball in hand he seems more at ease than he has been all night, which is saying something, because this guy truly is one laid-back dude.

His former coach Burguet, his mother M’ Mah Marie and his three sisters watch from the side, smiling and joking around. There’s so much joy here. Burguet, who M’ Mah Marie refers to as her son’s second father, puts his glasses on and starts scrolling through old pictures of Doumbouya on his phone.

“Look at this,” Burguet says, pointing to a photo of a very skinny 12-year-old Doumbouya. “My baby!”

The Pistons’ newest player poses with the basketball one more time and the photographer is satisfied. Then Doumbouya looks over at his family and asks for his flag. He drapes it around his shoulders again and stares into the camera as the flash goes off.

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