From picking up the sport of basketball in his hometown of Conakry, Guinea to developing into an NBA prospect at Virginia, former forward Mamadi Diakite’s unconventional journey has been a memorable one. Now, after five years on Grounds, Diakite is ready to move on from Charlottesville and chase his dreams of playing professional basketball.
“I want to make it [to the] professional [level],” Diakite said. “That was my dream since I was very young. So, I think this chapter is pretty much over now. I will have to be focused on [the future].”
As he prepares for the NBA, let’s take a look at exactly how Diakite reached this point.
Diakite’s path to Charlottesville
Growing up in Guinea, Diakite’s first choice of sport was actually soccer, not basketball. However, as he continued to grow, Diakite eventually transitioned to basketball where his height and athleticism allowed him to excel. As Diakite improved his basketball skills, he set his sights on the United States, which offered Diakite more opportunities to not only play basketball but also receive a high-quality education.
“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 to The Cavalier Daily in 2019. “But he didn’t know how to get me here.”
Ultimately, with some help from a Facebook page that showcased his talents and a compatriot who played Division I basketball, Diakite moved to the U.S. in 2014 and found a home at the Blue Ridge School in Saint George, Va. Under the tutelage of Coach Bill Ramsey, Diakite developed into a highly-touted college prospect, averaging 12 points and eight rebounds per game in his final year and securing offers from multiple D-I programs.
“[Diakite is] highly talented and has the type of run and jump tools at his size that just can't be taught,” an ESPN analyst wrote in his scouting report. “He'll be a rim protector, defender and finisher from day one, but has the potential to develop into a more accomplished scorer as his career goes on.”
Diakite’s recruitment officially ended Aug. 4, 2015 when he committed to Virginia and Coach Tony Bennett’s program. He then reclassified and joined the Cavaliers in the fall of 2015.
“We are excited and fortunate to add [Diakite] to the Virginia basketball family this season,” Bennett said in a press release after the commitment. “[Diakite] is an athletic forward with a big upside. We look forward to his development during his career at U.Va.”
And what a career it was.
A standout career at Virginia
When Diakite first joined the Virginia men’s basketball program, he had to wait before seeing playing time on the court. Like many other Virginia forwards, Diakite spent his first year on Grounds as a redshirt while he learned the pack-line defense under Bennett and developed his physique with strength and conditioning Coach Mike Curtis.
After his freshman year, Diakite was an immediate contributor for the Cavaliers. He played in over 30 games in both the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons and averaged 14 and 15.6 minutes per game, respectively. Even in the early years of his Virginia career, Diakite showed his potential both on offense and defense. From ranking 10th in the ACC in blocked shots in 2016-17 to shooting 57.7 percent from the field in the 2017-18 season, Diakite was a force to be reckoned with.
Diakite’s third season on the court was truly his breakout year. After the departure of All-ACC forward Isaiah Wilkins, Diakite was thrust into Bennett’s starting lineup and played a critical part in Virginia’s historic 2018-19 season.
During the regular season, Diakite clearly stepped up his level of play — he set multiple career highs and was third in the ACC in blocked shots. However, Diakite truly came alive during the 2019 NCAA Tournament. In the first three games alone, Diakite scored 17 points against Gardner-Webb, led the team with 14 points against Oklahoma and logged a career-high 11 rebounds against Oregon.
Then, against Purdue in the Elite Eight, Diakite hit an unforgettable shot at the end of regulation to keep the Cavaliers’ season alive. “The Shot,” as it came to be known, was emblematic of Diakite’s growth, determination and ability to step up when it mattered the most. Then in the championship game, he contributed nine points and seven rebounds, helping Virginia secure its first national title.
“[Winning the title] hadn't hit me this whole year until now in the postseason when I'm not doing anything,” Diakite said. “So being able to ... realize [that] I was a part of something very special is big for me. I'm coming from a country that's very poor, a third-world country, and me being able to be on that stage where everyone doesn't get the experience of was very big for me.”
After a fantastic 2018-19 season, Diakite considered moving on from Charlottesville and entered himself into the 2019 NBA Draft. However, after getting exposure to the NBA and receiving useful feedback, he chose to return to Virginia for his final season.
“I thought [withdrawing my name from the draft] was a great decision,” Diakite said. “I mean, it was made back then because we knew … [how it would] set me up in terms of the draft board and playing in the NBA. Also, [I valued] being able to help my team and the staff and be a part of something special again this year. I know we didn't get a chance to finish the year, but that was very valuable to do.”
Taking advice from former Virginia star Malcolm Brogdon, Diakite knew he had to be a “killer” when he came back for his senior season — he did just that. Diakite led the Cavaliers in scoring with 13.7 points per game and was second on the team in rebounds with 6.8 boards per game — both career highs. He also racked up a number of honors including being named to the All-ACC defensive team and the All-ACC second team.
After playing a supporting role for so long, Diakite thrived when given the opportunity to take center stage. With Diakite leading the team, Virginia finished second in the ACC and won its last eight games of the season. Although the season was ultimately cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Diakite knew the Cavaliers were ready to compete in March.
“We were very confident,” Diakite said. “We were ready to surprise the world and were ready to do something special, but again, we have to respect what's for safety first.”
Although Diakite didn’t get the chance to finish his senior year, his Virginia career was nonetheless impressive. In addition to his success on the court, Diakite also graduated with a major in French and a minor in Global Culture and Commerce, earning a quality education like his parents had intended.
“In the classroom, [Diakite] was obviously a focal point for his classmates, not only because of his great height and basketball fame, but also because of his quick, bright smile and his pleasant demeanor,” said Kandioura Dramé, associate French professor and a mentor to Diakite, to U.Va. Today.
Looking back at his time in Charlottesville, Diakite recognized the impact the Virginia community has had on him.
“I'll remember the people I was hanging out with, the fans and the coaching staff,” Diakite said. “The fact that Coach [Bennett] gave me an opportunity to come here, give me an offer … when I first got to Blue Ridge … I'm a different man from when I first got here.”
Looking ahead to the future
With his collegiate career behind him, Diakite now sets his sights on the 2020 NBA Draft. He has hired an agent, received positive feedback and is ready to contribute in whatever role he is given. Even amidst a pandemic, Diakite continues to develop his skills and prepare for the professional level while practicing social distancing. For instance, Diakite began working out in John Paul Jones Arena by himself in late March.
Given Diakite’s combination of size and skill, he could be a high-value draft pick for NBA teams looking for forwards with potential. However, Virginia fans will have to wait until June 25 to see if and when Diakite’s name will be called.
Outside of professional basketball, Diakite also hopes to leverage his platform to help impoverished communities in Africa. During his childhood, Diakite witnessed poverty around him. Accordingly, Diakite and his father launched a project called Mère et Enfant this year, which will aid pregnant women in Guinea who cannot afford the costs of childbirth and pregnancy.
Going forward, Diakite will undoubtedly approach every challenge — both on and off the court — with a sense of optimism and hope.
“To me, in hard moments, being able to smile, being able to enjoy seeing the positive out of anything, whether negative or positive is my strength,” Diakite said. “And I think that helps a lot of people around you, your teammates, just everyone really.“