The Aztecs recently got a commitment from Tahirou Diabate, a graduate senior from Portland. He measures at 6’9″, 225 lbs. The addition is a head scratcher to some. The Aztecs seemed set at Center, with Nathan Mensah and Joshua Tomaic returning. At power forward they have Aguek Arop returning and a promising player in Keshad Johnson moving up the depth chart. With all those players looking to get minutes, where does Diabate fit in?
After watching a few games of Diabate, he may very well be the starter at power forward. He is not the type of skilled “unicorn” big everyone always wants, but he is a good player. With him on the roster the Aztecs will have the opportunity to always have two players that are 6’9″ or taller on the floor at all times. In a conference like the Mountain West, the Aztecs may very well be able to bully their way to many wins.
Diabate sat out the 2020-2021 season for personal reasons, and due to the blanket waiver granted by the NCAA is able to play for the 2021-2022 season. He will likely be rusty to start the season. He also has had a lot of time to work on individual skills, such as shooting, ball handling, quickness, etc. There is no telling what skills may have improved or degraded over the last year, these observations are based on games played in the 2019-2020 season.
What does Diabate bring Defensively?
Diabate usually played center for the Portland Pilots, but also played at the power forward spot. Statistically he recorded a block percentage of 4.6% in his last season at Portland. That was good for 184th in the nation that season according to KenPom. It doesn’t compare to Nathan Mensah’s 9.2% last season, but is a solid number. He is not the most explosive rim protector, but he knows how to position himself to disrupt shots and get blocks.
He also had a 1.7% steal percentage, which compares favorably to what Yanni Wetzell accomplished as an Aztec (1.8%). He made a play that reminded me of Yanni Wetzell where he stripped a player at the free throw line and started a fast break. He wasn’t able to finish it, but he can be disruptive with his hands. When opponents catch the ball with their back to the basket he reaches in and sometimes pokes the ball out.
On the boards he’s not a black hole, but he is very good. He had a defensive rebounding rate of 18%. Nathan’s last season was 22.4%. So pairing them together should be nice.
At Portland Diabate’s job was to hedge and recover in the pick and roll game. As the ball handler comes off the screen, he steps out and denies a driving lane until the guard can return as the primary defender. Once that happens, he needs to quickly move back and guard his man before the opposing ball handler can pass it in for a dunk or layup. It takes a lot of lateral quickness to be able to wall off a drive and recover to your man before a pass can be made. Diabate was pretty successful at it, and should be able to switch onto guards and wings if needed. He can be a versatile defender if asked to be.
His biggest weakness is closing out on perimeter players. In the games I watched he routinely got burned by players who were spotted up along the perimeter. Diabate generally either closes out short, giving up an open three point shot, or closes out too hard and gets blown by, giving up a layup. While I’m sure this will happen at times with the Aztecs, playing with a rim protector like Nathan Mensah will allow Diabate to close out hard and not worry too much about giving up a layup.
Diabate’s other issue defensively is that he is foul prone. He committed 6 fouls per 40 minutes in his last season. For reference, Nathan Mensah recorded 5.2 last season, and Tomaic had 6.8. Collecting fouls limits the time you can play, and eventually gives the opponent easy free throw chances. Luckily, the depth at the big positions should help mitigate any time lost due to foul trouble, as any player could collect a couple early fouls and still have capable replacements available.
Overall, Diabate should be a boon to the defense. He is by no means perfect, but his combination of size, lateral quickness, and active hands bode well for the Aztecs next season.
What does Diabate bring offensively?
The first thing that stands out about Diabate is his skill in the low post. He knows how to gain separation from defenders, he has a full arsenal of moves he can use to go around or through defenders, and finishes well around the basket. He will draw comparisons to Yanni Wetzell for the way he makes defenders look like fools in the post.
His ability down low will help set up the rest of the offense too. Defenders will have to double team him to get the ball out of his hands. He can sometimes split the double team and still finish. The best option is to pass out of the double team though. Especially if there are shooters like Adam Seiko or Matt Bradley on the floor. Diabate isn’t the most willing passer, but he has shown the ball handling ability and court vision to pass out of double teams when necessary.
Most of his offensive production will come from traditional big man actions. Post ups, rolling to the rim, cutting off ball, and offensive rebounds. He is an above average player at all of those things.
His offensive rebounding percentage was 10.3% as a junior. That’s the same as Yanni Wetzell when he was a Aztec, and it’s comparable to Nathan Mensah, who had 11.1% last season. So he will be able to collect a good amount of offensive rebounds and get easy points from them.
One other thing Diabate excels at is drawing contact. He drew 5.7 fouls per 40 minutes as a junior, good for 102nd in the nation according to KenPom. Only four Aztec players have had a better rate than that going back 10 seasons. They were Jamaal Franklin (twice) , Xavier Thames, Winston Shepard, and Matt Mitchell. Diabate is a career 56% shooter from the free throw line, so those fouls won’t result in as many points as fans would hope. Still, there are benefits in getting opponents into foul trouble, and getting into the bonus earlier.
Aside from traditional big man actions, Diabate has flashed some skills in other areas. He has above average ball handling for a player his size, and will occasionally play iso ball from the perimeter. He can hit 15 foot jumpers, although it’s not very efficient for him. He’s gone 3-7 on three point shots over his career. So he’s a career 43% shooter from deep, although the sample is too small to draw any conclusions from.
For what it’s worth, Diabate has posted video of himself working on his ball handling and his pull up jump shots from the midrange and behind the arc. Plus, he’ll have a full off-season to continue to work on his game with the team and the coaches, as opposed to last season when Covid restrictions really hindered players’ development. Even if he doesn’t add any new skills, he’s a solid offensive piece who will frustrate opponents down low and help the Aztecs play inside out. He’ll be a good pick and roll partner for Trey Pulliam and Lamont Butler, and will have some opportunities to score out of post ups until the opposing team decides to start double teaming him.
Many fans were concerned with this commitment when it was first announced, myself among them. The team essentially has no wings, and Diabate doesn’t fill that hole. The concern is understandable. However, Diabate is a good player. Having only two true bigs on the roster last season was an anomaly. Coach Dutcher obviously wanted to add some size, and got a player who is very versatile defensively in the process. Diabate will also help the interior offense, something that contributed to a couple of losses last season (at Utah State, Syracuse). He should play around 20 minutes a game and will fill in at either center or power forward. I’m projecting him to start at power forward and I think fans will be pleasantly surprised when they see him play. Similar to the start of the 2019-20 season, the Aztecs will be able to play some bully ball and beat teams largely due to being bigger and stronger than their opponents. Especially in the Mountain West, where most teams power forwards are between 6’5″ and 6’7″.