17-Year-Old NBA Superprospect Sekou Doumbouya Gets His First Taste of NBA Life

David Gardner@@byDavidGardnerStaff WriterFebruary 23, 2018


It's a few hours before Team LeBron takes on Team Steph, and many of the NBA's power brokers are packed into the Lakers' practice facility for a different high-stakes hoops game. There are no active All-Stars here. Instead, this court is crowded with top teenage prospects from all over the world. And one has nearly every executive and scout transfixed. At 6'9" and a skinny 210 pounds, he's nearly impossible to overlook.

And once you lock onto him, it's easy to see why Sekou Doumbouya is already considered a lottery pick in the 2019 NBA draft.

Doumbouya, who is 17, picked up a basketball for the first time just five years ago, but his fundamentals are already sound. His shot spins in a mesmerizing arc, his handle is tight for a player his size, and he can switch fluidly between four positions. On offense, he regularly bullies his way to the rim for a dunk. On defense, he belly-flops for loose balls and swats shots to the benches.

The final result of this game won't long be remembered, but Doumbouya is scoring lasting points in it with scouts for everything from his smooth play to the way he hounds his teammates relentlessly with cries of "Let's go!"

For the past four days, Doumbouya and 66 other teenagers from 36 countries have been crashing All-Star Weekend as part of the NBA's Basketball Without Borders Global Camp. For Doumbouya, it was a journey that began inauspiciously with an eight-hour flight crammed into coach but is winding up successful beyond even his highest hopes. He stepped into an NBA arena for the first time. He ate more Wetzel's Pretzels than could be counted. He met his NBA idol.

And he's walking away with the confidence that, a few years from now, he could earn his return to this event as an All-Star.

On his first night in Los Angeles, Doumbouya wandered into a hotel meeting room that the NBA had carefully converted into a players lounge, complete with video games, Gatorades and seemingly unlimited snacks. Many among the camp had never been to America, but Doumbouya's agent splits his time between France and Texas, and he invited Doumbouya to Dallas for part of last summer.

When Doumbouya discovered that the first night's buffet included In-N-Out burgers and fries, he dived in line right away.

Born in Conakry, Guinea, former French colony in West Africa, Doumbouya moved with his mother and his three siblings to France when he was just a year old. He grew up in Fleury-les-Aubrais, a town two hours south of Paris. At 12, a friend introduced him to hoops, and he started playing in pickup games. In soccer, his size could have become a constraint. But in basketball, it has been nothing but a benefit. Slowly, the sport he discovered so late became an obsession.

"I wasn't very good at first," Doumbouya says, "but I felt good right away."

After starting his youth career with CJF Les Aubrais, he moved to the highly regarded French National Institute of Sport, Expertise and Performance (INSEP) at age 14. In the fall of 2016, he signed with Poitiers Basket 86, a pro team in France's second tier. Playing with and against professionals many years his senior, Doumbouya posted 6.8 points and 3.3 rebounds in nearly 17 minutes per game. That December, he helped lead the French national under-18 team to a European championship in Turkey. Against age-group competition, his numbers boomed, to the tune of 17.8 points and 7.0 rebounds a game.

He arrived at Basketball Without Borders in Los Angeles this month fresh off a successful sophomore season with Poitiers, in which he'd increased his scoring (8.3) and rebounding (4.4) averages, and hoping to show again just how dominant he could be against players his own age. And he wanted to confront the perception that he sometimes coasted on his raw physical gifts. From the first day of the camp, on Friday, he attacked every drill with intensity—racing to the finish of sprints, slapping the backboard on layups and collecting the ball with both hands on rebounds. Although his English is limited, he talked nonstop to teammates.

Off the court, Doumbouya spent most of his time with two other French-speaking players: Killian Hayes, a 16-year-old French American guard already regarded as one of 2020's top international prospects; and Yacine Toumi, a Tunisian prospect and the cousin of Mavericks big man Salah Mejri.

On Friday, the entire camp embarked on a trip that was quintessentially L.A.: traveling 26 miles in 80 minutes to reach the Griffith Observatory. At the top of the stairs leading to the roof deck, with a full view of Los Angeles beneath them, the boys paused for a selfie, feeling like they own the city. Only the voice of a chaperone snapped them out of the trance. "Don't hold up the stairs, boys," a coach from South Africa playfully shouted at them. "You're not stars yet!"

From Griffith, the campers descended into downtown Los Angeles and walked into Staples Center, where they had tickets to Friday night's Rising Stars Challenge. Among the game's participants were five BWB alumni, including Frank Ntilikina, a French guard and friend of Doumbouya's, who was a BWB camper in 2016 in Toronto before he became a top-10 pick in the 2017 draft. The campers watched, rapt, as the World Team trounced Team USA, 155-124. And they were elated when, midway through the third quarter, they were shown on the Staples Center Jumbotron. They all pulled out their phones and recorded themselves recording themselves.

Photo by David Gardner

Since Doumbouya had never been to an NBA arena before, he and the other boys decided to spend the rest of the second half exploring. Their first stop, naturally, was McDonald's. Doumbouya regularly enjoys the golden arches in France, but the portion sizes and flavors are far better in America, he says. After the pit stop, they sneaked down to the lower bowl and slipped into some premium seats. Wolfing down their hamburgers, French fries and McFlurries, the boys watched Ntilikina whip up two assists, two steals and a layup.

When they were discovered at the end of the quarter, they sulked back up to their upper-section seats, stopping for cinnamon pretzels and slushies as a consolation concession.

After the game, as he strode out of the arena, Doumbouya was downright buoyant, saying, "this is the best night of my life." Little did he known what was waiting for him on Saturday night.

On Saturday, the camp's second day, even more NBA scouts assembled in the stands, and a consensus began to form: Sekou Doumbouya was the best player at Basketball Without Borders.

"I don't think there's any question he's a first-rounder," one team executive says.

"He's everything you're looking for in a prospect," one NBA scout says. "You'd have to be blind not to see his pro potential," says another.

Doumbouya is aware that he's dominating. And he's happy with his results from the combine, which show him at 6'9" with a 6'11" wingspan and an 8'11" standing reach.

Growing up, he tried to play like LeBron James, and he now compares himself to Paul George. But his favorite player, by far, is Joel Embiid. He loves the 76ers center, in part because Embiid is fluent in French, and in part because he's another BWB alumnus who discovered hoops at an advanced age, but mostly because of the young star's silly and outspoken attitude. Around Hayes and Toumi, Doumbouya is constantly cracking jokes and playing harmless pranks, like bouncing a toy rubber basketball off their backs.

When the campers returned to Staples Center on Saturday night for the Skills Challenge, the boys' confidence had risen thanks to the previous night's caper. Descending the escalator to the lower bowl, Doumbouya FaceTimed with Ntilikina, and they agreed to try to meet after the Slam Dunk Contest. Although the boys failed to find seats this time around, they were content to stand in one of the corridors, munch on another round of Wetzel's Pretzels, slurp down some more slushies and watch Donovan Mitchell win the dunk contest with some retro slams.

Photo by David Gardner

As Mitchell was crowned, Doumbouya looked down at his phone to see Ntilikina's FaceTime. He invited the boys down to the court, where All-Stars like Russell Westbrook were casually chatting with celebrities like Kevin Hart, and they practically leapt down from the stands to the floor.

"Being out here with them is so much fun," Ntilikina said. "They're really great kids. Sekou is ready for the NBA, and Killian is close even though he's young. It's a great feeling to see what's happening with them and French basketball. I feel a lot of pride in our country when I see them."

After posing for a group picture, Doumbouya spotted a 7-footer in a bright gold jacket: It was Joel Embiid. Ntilikina flagged him down and offered to take a picture of the boys with him. Even though Embiid only talked to them for a few moments, and he spent most of that time teasing Doumbouya for his old Nikes and his BWB sweats, Doumbouya didn't care. He was happy just to be here, in America and among stars.

Photo by David Gardner

He carries that exuberance into the camp's final day and winds up winning the High Flyer award, which is given to the top camper on and off the court. Although his team doesn't win the championship and he doesn't win MVP, the camp's highest honor, reporters descend on Doumbouya, who tries his best to understand and answer questions in English. He gently corrects a reporter who mistakenly thinks he may attend an American college. (Such a move would delay his draft eligibility by a year.) He talks about becoming a Bulls fan because of Michael Jordan, even though he was born two years after Jordan retired from Chicago. And he describes his ideal Nikes, Jordan 18s with a red wash.

Finally, free from most of the media, he reflects on the whirlwind of the past few days. "Meeting Embiid and all the NBA people, it was amazing," he says. "Being around them encourages me to work harder. They think I can be a top-10 pick next year, and I do, too. Now I have to prove it."