Moussa Diabaté’s unique path to the Clippers was molded in humility and patience

The LA Clippers hosted an event at Michelle and Barack Obama Sports Complex celebrating the 350th basketball court that the team pledged to refurbish with the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks. On this particular day, one week after the 2022 NBA Draft, the Clippers formally introduced Moussa Diabaté– the team’s 43rd pick – in the 2022 NBA Draft.

After getting to see his jersey for the first time inside the locker room of the team’s practice facility, Diabaté got to hold his Clippers jersey once again in front of a much larger crowd.

“Moussa grew up playing on public courts in Paris; far from this one, but at the same time, all too familiar,” Clippers president of business operations Gillian Zucker said. “The image of the kid on a court with the ball in their hand is universal. For Moussa, that ball, that court, is like all the way from Paris to Los Angeles. Which is why his presence today is even more powerful. Moussa is living proof of where a ball and your local community court can take you.”

(Photo: Kirby Lee / USA TODAY Sports)

The Clippers building a new court in the city and presenting Diabaté there was something of a full-circle moment for the 20-year-old big man. Yes, the Clippers have a project in Diabaté, and they intend to treat him as such. But building with Diabaté goes beyond what he’s able to do with the ball in his hands or his feet on the hardwood. Who Diabaté is as a person played a major role in him landing with the Clippers and it has driven Diabaté throughout his basketball journey as well.

“I think that I met great people throughout my journey from the time I came here in America, to the time I am in now,” Diabaté told The Athletic before his first practice with the Clippers. “I think I’ve had great people that helped me and always made sure that I’m not only seen as a product, you know? Like more than an athlete. I think it’s a big thing. And I really believe it.

“I think that like a lot of times, people coming in from a different country when they come in, it’s like, they don’t have anybody to support them. And thank God for me, I had the chance to be able to meet people throughout my journey that helped me and always made sure that I stood for myself as a human being.”

Diabaté’s path to the NBA has been a winding one. His mother is from Mali and his father is from Guinea, and Diabaté is the oldest of five siblings. Diabaté began playing basketball in Paris at 12 years old, then moved to the U.S. at 14, enrolling at Montverde Academy in Florida for eighth grade in 2016.

As a freshman, Diabaté went to Florida Preparatory Academy in Melbourne, followed by a sophomore season spent at DME Academy in Daytona Beach. Diabaté spent his junior and senior years at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. Before transferring to IMG Academy, Diabaté began receiving offers from universities, while wearing the same No. 25 that he is set to debut with the Clippers.

By the time Diabaté arrived at IMG Academy, the school was establishing itself as a breeding ground for highly recruited basketball talent. Dallas Mavericks center Dwight Powell was the first IMG Academy alum to be drafted when he was selected 45th out of Stanford in 2014. An IMG Academy product has been drafted every year since except for 2016. IMG Academy head coach Sean McAloon believes Diabaté stands out from other program’s prospects with one critical trait.

“Seventeen years I’ve been a head coach at the high school level. Five years of college, played in college. I’ve never seen anybody work as hard as Moussa Diabaté,” McAloon told The Athletic. “That kid is an ultimate gym rat. And no one can tell me different. And I’ve had hard-workers, and I’ve been fortunate to be around guys who were lottery picks. I’ve never seen anybody work as hard as him. Ever.”

McAloon said Diabaté exhibits similar characteristics to current Oklahoma City Thunder center and 2021 second-round draft pick Jeremiah Robinson-Earl in terms of the accountability both set as workers while at IMG Academy.

“Jeremiah Robinson-Earl was like the same as Moussa – Moussa on steroids,” McAloon told The Athletic. “Like Jeremiah was very focused, very driven, no BS. Straight about work. Great team player. We talk to guys about that all the time. But I mean, once Moussa came along, now it’s like, he’s the standard.”

While the coronavirus pandemic interrupted Diabaté’s first season at IMG Academy, he chose to stay on campus, rather than go home to France, where everything was completely shut down. Diabaté and his roommate at IMG Academy, current Bryant small forward Josh Ozabor, worked out in the weight room, in the gym and on the track. The pandemic served as another opportunity to show Diabaté’s work ethic.

“I came up the campus and I looked at him and I was like, ‘You look nasty,’” McAloon told The Athletic, describing Diabaté’s unkempt appearance. “He’s like, ‘I can’t get a haircut.’ ‘So, you didn’t get a haircut, what about everything else?’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, we’re running low on…’ And you know, I was like, ‘Well, why didn’t you call me?’ He’s like, ‘I didn’t think about it.’

“So, it was like, he needed toothpaste, toothbrush, deodorant, shampoo. I mean, like, he doesn’t have any money. So it was like, OK, but like, you didn’t let that detract from you. And like his game improved so much because of it.”

Diabaté returned to IMG Academy as a senior in 2020-21 to average 14.1 points and 7.5 rebounds. He led his team to a 21-3 record while earning a selection to the McDonald’s All-American team.

“They’re going to have to find ways to get him out of the gym,” McAloon said of Diabaté’s work habits. “That’s what I did. I had to kick him out of the gym. So there’s going to be times where they’re going to be like, ‘Dude, that’s enough work. Get out.’”

Phil Martelli, an assistant coach at Michigan under head coach Juwan Howard, remembers when the Wolverines first started recruiting Diabaté. In 2019-20, the coaches were recruiting Jaden Springer, who wound up going to Tennessee for a year and being drafted in the first round of the 2021 NBA Draft by the Philadelphia 76ers, when they noticed Diabaté’s length and rawness.

“We thought, ‘I wonder what he will be, will become?’” Martelli said of meeting Diabaté. “Later that year, Juwan Howard saw him with the French under-19 team, and then we started to recruit him. And the unusual part is that we recruited him through COVID, so we didn’t really see him live. But Juwan and I had seen him earlier. So really, he was a ‘Zoom recruit’ for us.”

“I think Juwan did the best job of recruiting,” McAloon said of Howard, who was a former teammate of Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue. “He really recruited him as a person, you know, as opposed to maybe like a piece of meat. And that’s what appeals to Moussa, is genuine connection.”

(Photo: Trevor Ruszkowski / USA TODAY Sports)

Diabaté arrived at Michigan along with fellow one-and-done Caleb Houstan, a five-star recruit from Canada who went to Montverde Academy from 2018-21 and was selected 32nd in this year’s draft by the Orlando Magic. Since Michigan already had All-American center Hunter Dickinson, Diabaté started at power forward after coming off of the bench for the first six games of the season.

“They complemented each other because Moussa could be an outstanding rim runner, and Hunter, not a plodder, but he could get down the floor and trail and comfortably raise up from 3,” Martelli said. “Certainly, in practice, knowing that there were times like early on, where you did do some competitions and made Moussa the center on one team and Hunter the center on the other team, it was competitive as it should be. It wasn’t over the top, and it wasn’t deferential. Like Moussa wasn’t deferential to Hunter, say ‘Well, you’ve already done this. You’ve been an All-American. Let me just kind of wait in the weeds here.’”

Diabaté was the last option in a Michigan offense that had a lot of mouths to feed. Shooting guard Eli Brooks was the team’s second-leading scorer behind Dickinson, while Houstan and point guard DeVante Jones averaged more field-goal attempts per game than Diabaté’s 6.8. Diabaté was the only Michigan starter not to average double-figures, as he ended up at nine points per game while shooting 54.2 percent from the field. Despite playing so often next to Dickinson, Diabaté’s best offense came in the form of cuts and rolls, which he’ll get more of when playing center for the Clippers.

“Obviously with Dickinson this year, he played more at the four,” Frank said after the draft. “I think early on, his advantage, especially offensively, is going to be at the five. If you look at his dimensions, it’s very similar to some of the other fives in this league, and I’m not saying he’s the — he’s a different type of player. But you know, he’s the same height, length as guys like Isaiah Jackson, Daniel Gafford, different in how he plays.”

Diabaté went on to earn McDonald’s All-American at IMG Academy in Florida and a Big Ten All-Freshman team selection at Michigan. But it was his intangibles that left a good impression on the Clippers during the pre-draft process.

“We had the opportunity to interview him in Chicago,” Clippers president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank said the night of the draft. “As you’ll find out, he’s an extremely engaging young man … you only get 30 minutes with someone, but he just has an unbelievable energy and spirit about him.”

Diabate particularly impressed the Clippers on his 21st pre-draft workout, one that came after a cross-country flight from Miami. He participated in the tedious workouts despite dealing with an ankle injury, displaying a high motor that has always been a hallmark of Diabaté’s play.

“It was exhausting as hell, I ain’t going to lie,” Diabaté said of the 21 workouts. “It was crazy. But at the end of the day, it was a blessing, you know? I ended up being here. So I guess it was worth it.”

When the Clippers selected Diabaté at No. 43, it was the first time in eight years that the Clippers did not move up, down or into the draft board. LA is expected to sign Diabaté to a two-way contract, which will allow him to play for the Ontario Clippers in the G League and get the necessary reps to develop his skill set. But Frank praised Diabaté for having “special qualities to him” in regard to his energy and intensity.

“We thought Moussa has both the character traits on and off the court that we felt we could really build on,” Frank said.

Martelli described Diabaté as a developing talent with a good heart but add basketball fanatic to Diabaté’s résumé.

“He’s crazy about the NBA,” Martelli said. “He’ll argue for days and days… about Jordan better than LeBron, or LeBron better than Jordan, whatever. I don’t know what side he falls on.”

When asked by The Athletic Diabaté said he doesn’t have a side in the debate.

“I could go on forever with this,” Diabaté said. “But for me, I think LeBron, Jordan and Kobe are just, having such a big presence in the game and they bring so much that, I can’t really, you know, like, rank them. I think they’re like the top three that you can’t touch.”

But Diabaté’s passion for basketball goes beyond the G.O.A.T. conversation. He’s also very disciplined about what he puts into his body. At the combine, Diabaté measured in at 6-10 1/4 and 216 pounds, with a 7-2 1/2 wingspan, 10 1/2-inch hands and a body-fat percentage of 2.7. Yes, 2.7 percent body fat.

“I think the machine must have been broken or something,” Diabaté said. “No, I seriously don’t know. I thought that was another thing, actually. When I saw this, I was like, ‘Damn, I must have something wrong with my body.’”

The next lowest body-fat percentage at the combine this year was 3.8 percent, from guards Gabriele Procida, Keon Ellis and Terquavion Smith. Point guard Aaron Brooks also checked in with a body-fat percentage of 2.7 percent back in 2007. But Brooks is 5-11 3/4, nearly a foot shorter than Diabaté.

“I think at the end of the day, you attract what you give, you know,” Diabaté, who is a practicing Muslim, said. “And I think that, by bringing just good, only good things around me and my body, inside of my body, I think helps me out. And just long term, like 15 years, hopefully in the league, or like 10 years after that, I’m going to be able to be like, ‘Look you still feel good.’ You know what I’m saying? And I think that’s a huge reason why.”

Diabaté’s skill level will need to improve, and that is part of what will make his journey in the NBA. At Michigan, Diabaté averaged just 0.8 assists to 1.5 turnovers per game, and he made only 61.9 percent of his free throws and 3-of-14 3s (21.4 percent). But he made up for that by being a strong finisher in transition, while leading Michigan with 2.4 offensive rebounds per game.

“Offensively, right now, his best asset is probably his motor,” McAloon said. “That’s probably the best way to describe it. That’s his best asset, because he’s really good at rebounding. … He’s a really good offensive rebounder because he has a motor. He wants to go get it.”

Theoretically, Diabaté’s physical attributes are expected to help him be a plus defender in the NBA. Frank touted Diabaté’s ability to switch out on the perimeter with his quick-twitch athleticism, while Diabaté’s energy and will to defend are seen as positive traits as well.

(Photo: Jeffrey Becker / USA TODAY Sports)

“Basketball-wise, there’s clay now in the hands of the clay master,” Martelli said. “And what will they form him to be? That will be to be determined. But there’s no outstanding feature. And I don’t mean that in a negative way. Like if you said to me, is he an NBA shooter? No. Is he an NBA ballhandler? No. Is he an NBA defender? No. But he’s (20) years old, and that’s, you know, that’s why they talk, I think, throughout that draft or a bunch of (20)-year-olds. You know, who’s ready is in the eye of the beholder. But just an engaging, engaging personality.”

Diabaté’s warm demeanor off the court belies an unquestionably intense and aggressive style on it. Diabaté’s aggression at Michigan did not lead to many plays on defense (0.9 blocks, 0.3 steals per game), while foul trouble was an issue. Diabaté tied Dickinson with a team-leading 2.7 fouls per game despite playing seven fewer minutes per game. Fouls were a frequent example at Michigan of that style being excessive, and Diabaté had a regretful moment in school as well.

After Howard took umbrage with a late timeout called by Wisconsin head coach Greg Gard towards the end of a February road loss, an altercation broke out in the handshake line. Howard escalated the conflict by throwing a punch, and Diabaté was suspended a game for throwing a punch in the ensuing scuffle. Earlier in the season, Diabaté had to be restrained by teammates after a similar post-game quarrel at Rutgers.

“It was an unfortunate situation, obviously shouldn’t have happened,” Diabaté told The Athletic. “We’re playing basketball at the end of the day. Sometimes things happen, you know, and everything’s going fast, you make the wrong decision. …It definitely was an unfortunate situation. And obviously, I’m still thinking about this, and I’m, like, ‘Damn.’ It was stupid, you know, again, to even get to that point. But you know, it is what it is. And I’ll still help my team with whatever it takes.”

The Wolverines made the national tournament as an 11-seed, upsetting Colorado State and Tennessee before losing in the Sweet Sixteen to Villanova. A month later, Diabaté declared for the NBA Draft.

“The thing about Moussa was I was expecting him to have a significant upgrade going into his sophomore year, because he’s the type of kid that would get in the gym and work on whatever needs to be worked on in order to get there,” McAloon said. “Just so happened where now he’s drafted by the Clippers, and I think that jump will obviously jump higher because he’s able to do nothing now except for being a professional, which is what he wants.”

Self-awareness is a major key to a player realizing their potential, whether those goals are set by others or are driven from within. Diabaté knows he has a long way to go, even with how far he has come. At Michigan, he learned about understanding the game and paying attention to details, repeating that slowing down is necessary at times.

Now, he’ll look to take the next step forward at NBA Summer League in Las Vegas. Shaun Fein, the current leader of the Clippers’ development program and the team’s summer league coach, looks forward to what Diabaté has ahead of him.

“He has a high motor. Runs the floor really well, sets screens,” Fein said of Diabaté. “He’s going to be a rim threat and be our anchor on the defensive side of the ball. And the most impressive thing I think about him is he’ll be able to switch one through five, and he’s able to move his feet really well. So looking forward to the challenge for him.”

But Diabaté’s former coaches are excited for him, even with how much he needs to be built up from a skill standpoint.

“Whenever he gets there, he gets there,” McAloon said. “But I’m telling you, when it clicks and his ballhandling and his shooting get significantly better than where they are now? You can add the rest of that stuff, and that’s a scary sight.”

“I think the biggest emphasis is that he’s a young kid going into a man’s league,” Martelli said. “And he’s well aware of that. So patience doesn’t have to be negative, it doesn’t have negative connotations. Patience is truly going to be a virtue with Moussa.”

It won’t be all about basketball for Diabaté on the Clippers. So much of being a good teammate is contributing to a culture even though one is not playing. The Clippers observed that Diabaté’s personality would fit with the team. One year after drafting another precocious former McDonald All-American in Brandon Boston Jr., who earned positive reviews all season for the spirit he brought to a veteran locker room, the Clippers hope to see the same from Diabaté.

“Similar to when we drafted some of our other younger guys, just the infectious energy in a long, long season,” Frank said on draft night. “It has a multiplying effect, and when you talk to all of the different people who have been around Moussa from IMG, at Michigan, some of the people in Paris we spoke to, it’s all consistent. It’s just who he is. I think that, along with the positional development, will give him a really good chance to be successful.”

Diabaté is aware of the long game and embracing it. He knows it is only the beginning of his NBA career but can appreciate what he is building.

“I feel like a lot of rookies when they come in, they expect so much of themselves, and sometimes you’re just adding unnecessary pressure,” Diabaté said. “And I don’t want to put myself in that, so I just think that I got to trust the process and just go with it.

“I mean for me, it ain’t really like, ‘I got to do this, I got to do that. Just get better man. And by the end of the year, I’ll be able to, if I’m able to tell myself that I’m better than what I was when I came in. I’m good. I’m satisfied.”

(Top photo: Rick Osentoski / USA TODAY Sports)

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