Four of the five players in the No. 3 Cavaliers’ starting five have received significant national attention for the role they have played on this dominant team.
Junior guards Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy are both lethal three-point shooters and lockdown defenders. Redshirt sophomore guard De’Andre Hunter is a versatile wing with jaw-dropping athleticism. Senior center Jack Salt is a defensive enforcer whose ball screens feel like a brick wall.
But there is one player in the starting five who has been a very important piece of Virginia’s team this season that hasn’t received the same attention.
Junior forward Mamadi Diakite, who began starting consistently early this year, remains a relative unknown. On the court, the 6-foot-9 Diakite makes difficult plays with ease, stuffing shots from some of the best big men in the country, sinking hook shots and stepping back to drain threes.
However, Diakite’s journey has been anything but easy. He grew up in Conakry, Guinea, 4,444 miles away from Charlottesville. There, he had no dreams of playing basketball in a country where soccer is the main sport.
“Growing up I was playing soccer,” Diakite said. “I didn’t know anything about basketball. I thought it was a weird sport that Americans played.”
Gradually, though, as Diakite grew taller and taller, it became clear that his athleticism might not be best utilized on the soccer field. So he tried basketball. His height and athleticism immediately made him a force on the court.
“I was very used to running a lot on the soccer field,” Diakite said. “So the transition for the soccer field to the basketball court athletic-wise wasn’t a big deal.”
In Guinea, however, there weren’t many ways for Diakite to take his game to the next level. The U.S. was the place where he could make that happen. Additionally, Diakite’s family — very focused on academics — believed Diakite could leverage his talent to receive a great education in the U.S.
“My dad was trying to find a way for me to get here because he thought it was a country where people have a lot of opportunities,” Diakite said. “But he didn’t know how to get me here.”
Therefore, because of a lack of traditional means to get to the U.S., Diakite — along with the help of his sister — made a page on Facebook showcasing his basketball talent in an attempt to attract attention from the U.S.
A Guinea native named Hassan Fofana, who played basketball at the D1 level in the U.S., found Diakite through the Facebook page. Fofana helped Diakite find a home at the Blue Ridge School, an all-boys boarding school in St. George, Va., where he attracted attention from some of the nation’s top basketball programs.
Ultimately, Diakite chose to go to Virginia, where Coach Tony Bennett and the staff made Diakite feel at home, especially as an international player.
“I think U.Va. is different from other teams,” Diakite said. “We accept people. The staff, the coaches, the fans –– they don’t discriminate. That’s a big part of us feeling like home when we’re here.”
Diakite has taken advantage of the opportunity to play at Virginia and has improved significantly every year. He averaged 3.8 points per game as a freshman, 5.4 points per game as a sophomore and is averaging 6.6 points per game this year. The range on his jump shot has increased considerably, and he is shooting a career-best percentage from three.
More significantly, perhaps, has been Diakite’s growth on the defensive end. That’s where he has earned his minutes this season. Persistence and openness to feedback has turned him into a solid defender.
“Just slide your feet,” Diakite said. “Before, I used to not understand. I used to battle people and try to go find the contact, and I was getting in foul trouble.”
Bennett has been a great motivator for Diakite, who kept working hard even when he wasn’t logging consistent minutes. Persistence has been a theme for Diakite since he came to the U.S.
“[Bennett] always tells us to keep digging,” Diakite said. “Keep working hard. Even if it doesn’t work, keep sticking to what you know how to do, and one day, your time will come.”
This mindset has been especially important given the additional pressure Diakite feels as one of the players fellow Guineans look up to. He understands that beyond Virginia, his success can fuel the dreams of other young players in Conakry, across Guinea and across the continent of Africa.
“It depends on all the Africans that are here,” Diakite said. “If they show them that’s something that’s possible, that’s doable, then I think it’s going to get bigger and bigger.”
Diakite knows that there is added pressure on him to deliver. He has converted this pressure into grit. His journey hasn’t been easy, and that is exactly what has motivated him.
“Sometimes you think, ‘wow, I can’t give up right now, I’ve got to show them if you stick to something you can always do it,’” he said.
As Virginia continues to grind through conference play, look for Diakite to continue to become a bigger piece of this team. From Conakry to Charlottesville, Diakite’s infectious smile, hardworking nature and undeniable talent have led him to great success, inspiring others in the process.