Mamadi Diakite is becoming Virginia’s featured big man, and that’s good news
Saturday’s game at Louisville featured plenty of unfamiliar sights for Mamadi Diakite. The junior forward entered the KFC Yum! Center debuting a new hairstyle — dyed yellow — and took his seat on the bench to watch another starting lineup shakeup. This first five featured mainstays Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, De’Andre Hunter and Jack Salt alongside Braxton Key. It’s a group that started the first two games of the season but hasn’t started together since.
But it wasn’t until he entered the game that the biggest change happened. He quickly became a go-to option for a Cavaliers team that was really struggling from the outside. And that’s certainly a new feeling for a player who is averaging just 7.2 points per game this season.
It’s also a role he filled immediately and assertively. Inserted just two-and-a-half minutes into the game for Salt, Diakite got a couple of quick buckets — a one-dribble layup and then a one-dribble jumper — to help stabilize a struggling Virginia offense. He’d take just one more seat on the bench — a break that lasted under two minutes — before finishing the final 9:21 of the first half. He’d finish the opening stanza with eight points (already above his season average) and then add another six in the second half to finish with 14. It’s the most he’s scored since early January.
“Mamadi has really shown the ability to have good touch,” Tony Bennett said on Monday’s ACC teleconference. “Those were important drives where he caught it at the high post, and he had nice drives down the lane, and those were good things that he did that you have to do at times.”
Diakite’s offensive performance alongside Jay Huff was, essentially, what kept Virginia from completely falling out of contention in the first half.
“We were struggling to knock down shots from the outside, so he gave us interior scoring, which was really welcomed,” Bennett said.
It was the latest impressive showing in what has been a year of improvement across the board for the Guinean big man. Diakite is setting career highs in minutes, points, rebounds, block percentage and three-pointers made. Meanwhile, his turnover rate and foul rate are down.
He’s also becoming a better individual player offensively. After scoring just 24 unassisted baskets in 34 games last year, he’s scored 23 such times in just 26 games so far this year. He had three unassisted scores in the Louisville game alone.
“Mamadi’s continuing to improve,” Bennett said. “He’s getting better and better because he’s newer to the game than most guys are. Those skills are being refined more and more as time goes on.”
While Diakite’s improved versatility in offense has been impressive, it’s his progress defensively that has him playing nearly 30 minutes per game over the month of February, not including the Duke game in which he left early due to a head injury. Diakite can guard opposing big men due to his size and jumping ability, but he can guard opposing guards and forward thanks to his quickness. That makes him a perfect fit for what Bennett describes as an evolving, perimeter-oriented game, especially in the ACC.
“So many times, it’s four perimeter players, whether it’s a forward or a guard at that four man,” Bennett said. “Just by a matter of survival, your four man has to be able, most of the time, to go out and play shooters and do a job.
“Mamadi’s got the quickness and of course the length and all that. It’s just more of, ‘Ok that’s a different kind of animal.’ You’ve got to have the awareness to sometimes navigate screens and be disciplined, and he’s getting better and better at that.”
One reason for Diakite’s improvement as a perimeter defender is that he often guards Hunter in practice. Practicing against one of the nation’s elite versatile scorers gives Diakite an edge come game action. When teams go with smaller lineups, he can overpower opponents down low. When they go with big lineups, Diakite is simply too quick.
“Sometimes we don’t have him out there, but when we do, then hopefully [we] can get some advantages,” Bennett said.
Those advantages have led to Diakite becoming Virginia’s go-to big man in most situations. His 32 minutes Saturday were a career high, and he registered at least 30 on two other occasions in February. As Virginia moves toward tournament action, the Cavaliers will face a variety of opponents, often with limited turnaround time. The one constant in attacking those opponents, it seems, will be using Diakite against lineups big and small.
Story by Zach Pereles