Virginia needs Mamadi Diakite to be a better leader

mamadi diakite

Mamadi Diakite. Photo by Dan Grogan/GroganVision

At the 1:03 mark of the first half last night at Florida State, Virginia coach Tony Bennett called a 30-second timeout, and proceeded to light into senior forward Mamadi Diakite, who had just committed a sloppy turnover.

It was Diakite being Diakite, 2019-2020 vintage, trying to do too much, in this instance, taking a pass into the frontcourt as the Cavaliers were trying to beat a Florida State press, and instead of getting the ball back to a guard to set the offense, he attacked, and was rather easily dispossessed, leading to a runout and open FSU three.

Diakite seemed to respond well to the dressing-down, putting up 10 points in the second half before fouling out in the final minute of the 54-50 UVA loss.

His final line – 16 points on 6-of-8 shooting, six rebounds, two blocks, 32 minutes – was what you’d expect out of your star.

His demeanor this year – yelling and gesturing at teammates, officials, with body language that makes it seem that he thinks he’s the only guy out there who cares – is decidedly not what you’d expect, or want.

His frustrations with how things are going the year after helping Virginia to its first national championship are obvious.

And on top of that, you have to factor in the pressure that he put on himself when he surprisingly tested the NBA Draft waters following the title run, and a season in which he averaged a modest 7.4 points and 4.4 rebounds in 21.8 minutes per game, before deciding to return for his redshirt-senior season.

At first glance, his numbers have improved from last season – most notably, Diakite is averaging a team-best and career-high 13.1 points per game, and shooting a statistically impressive 36.4 percent from three-point range, on a higher volume of threes than he’s ever put up (2.1 attempts per game in 2019-2020, up from 0.4 attempts per game a year ago).

But a deep dive into the numbers gives a more complete picture that isn’t as flattering.

For starters, his overall shooting percentage is down sharply, from 55.0 percent a year ago to 46.7 percent this season. And, yes, that is a function to a great degree of the higher volume of threes, but then there’s this: his shooting on two-point attempts is also down sharply, from 57.1 percent in 2018-2019 to 49.2 percent this season.

Per, the difference is largely on shots in the paint. Diakite is shooting 63.8 percent on shots at the rim in 2019-2020; last season, he shot 70.4 percent at the rim.

And a markedly smaller fraction of his shots are at the rim: 35.2 percent this season, down from 52.3 percent last season.

Factoring in the extra value of three-point shots, and you still have Diakite putting up an effective field goal percentage of 50.3 percent this season, down from last season’s 56.1 percent.

Not surprisingly, then, his offensive rating is a career-low, at 101.4, down from his career-high 113.7 in 2018-2019.

No doubt this is the result of a guy trying, as he did on the turnover that precipitated the Bennett timeout last night in Tallahassee, to make up for who isn’t around this season.

Diakite was the fourth option on last year’s title team, and the Big Three – De’Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy – are all in the NBA now.

You knew going into this season that Diakite would be showcased, out of necessity, as the leading returning scorer and the most apparently NBA-ready.

Problem is, he’s playing like he thinks the NBA front-office types he worked out for last spring during his evaluation want him to play, rather than how Bennett and his teammates need him to play.

Just from the eye test, it has seemed that Diakite, on offense, has tended to let himself float around on the perimeter too much, trying a couple of things – to make up for the lack of three-point shooting on the roster, but also to let the NBA folks know that he can hit those shots.

Which was fine back when he was shooting 50 percent from three, as he was through the first seven games of the season, small sample size, but 8-of-16, nice.

Over the last nine: Diakite is 4-of-17 from three.

Small sample size, or reality check: the jury is still out.

Mechanically, the release on his perimeter shots is too slow, clunky, which lends itself to, maybe just shoot it on pick-and-pops when the defense keys on the cutter and you’re wide open, and otherwise, get your butt inside and become that paint monster that you were a year ago.

Yes, ideally, from an NBA perspective, Diakite shows his ability to knock down threes, to dribble-drive into the lane, demonstrates that he’s not an undersized center in a league that really doesn’t even use regular-sized centers, but rather can be a stretch four, at 6’9”.

Maybe he can evolve into being that guy, but he ain’t that guy now.

And Virginia needs him to be the guy that he is.

And they also need him to be a leader, and the yelling and gesturing at teammates and officials, the bad body language, none of that is helping this year’s team, or frankly, any NBA prospects he thinks he may have.

Story by Chris Graham

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