What NBA scouts are saying about rookie Bilal Coulibaly: ‘The sky’s the limit’

Author’s note: This is the second article in a four-part series examining NBA scouts’ opinions about the potential and development of the Washington Wizards’ most prominent young players. Part 1 (including an explanation of the methodology): Deni Avdija.

WASHINGTON — Few 2023 NBA Draft prospects rocketed up teams’ draft boards as quickly as Bilal Coulibaly did.

The lightning-fast ascent shocked even Coulibaly. He opened the 2022-23 season splitting time between two clubs: one in France’s under-21 league and the other the Metropolitans 92 senior team in France’s top league. As Coulibaly dominated in the youth league, the senior team gradually integrated him into its rotation. In late January, he started to play heavy minutes for the senior team. By April, he had turned into a difference-maker alongside the draft’s top prospect, Victor Wembanyama.

“Playing alongside Wembanyama created an opportunity for him to be seen by a lot of (NBA) teams and also, if he played well, to put himself in a position where he could get drafted this year,” an NBA scout told The Athletic.

“And kudos to him,” the scout added. “He took advantage of all of it.”

That scout — referred to as “Scout A” in the remainder of this piece — is one of three talent evaluators who shared their opinions about Coulibaly. Because the scouts’ teams almost certainly would not have permitted them to speak about an opposing player for publication, The Athletic granted anonymity so they could discuss the 6-foot-6 wing freely and without fear of reprisal.

The Washington Wizards’ front-office leaders prized Coulibaly so highly that they traded up from eighth to seventh to acquire Coulibaly’s draft rights from the Indiana Pacers. In that deal, Washington sent the draft rights to forward Jarace Walker and a future second-round pick to Indiana.

New Monumental Basketball president Michael Winger and new Wizards general manager Will Dawkins could have played it safe. Instead, they made what seemed like the ultimate high-risk, high-reward play ­— choosing a raw, relatively inexperienced 18-year-old prospect with undeniable physical gifts and intriguing intangibles. Because team owner Ted Leonsis has given Winger and Dawkins the freedom to rebuild the Wizards from the ground up, with no mandate to be competitive right away, the team’s coaches and staff won’t have to rush Coulibaly’s development.

“The sky is the limit for him,” Scout B said.

Coulibaly’s strengths

Because Metropolitans 92 was in the midst of its season in mid-May, Coulibaly did not attend the 2023 NBA Draft Combine in Chicago. As a result, the public does not have definitive data about his measurables, but he’s believed to have a 7-foot-2 wingspan, which would give him high-level positional size for an NBA shooting guard or small forward.

“I think he’s pretty straightforward with his athleticism, size, quickness,” Scout C said. “I think what was really intriguing about him was his growth throughout the season last year in climbing up the ranks. He improved throughout the year. For a young guy with that size, that physical profile, I think it’s certainly promising (in the NBA as far as having) a wing that can play both ways. That’s what you’re looking for with him.”

Coulibaly displayed his athletic and physical gifts during the 2023 NBA Summer League in Las Vegas.

The video clip that follows illustrates Coulibaly’s explosiveness. The San Antonio Spurs speed forward in transition, with the Spurs’ Seth Millner receiving a kick-ahead pass. Millner appears to have an unobstructed path to the basket, but Coulibaly recovers and records a chase-down block.

Will Coulibaly be one of the NBA’s most athletic players in the year ahead? Perhaps not, but he’s at least on the edge of the upper level. Sam Vecenie, The Athletic’s NBA Draft analyst, wrote before the draft that Coulibaly’s athleticism ranks in the top 10 percent of the league and added that Coulibaly’s athleticism “is incredibly functional in how it bears itself out on the court.”

Coulibaly demonstrated his agility at least several times throughout summer-league play, especially during the Wizards’ fourth exhibition. In the next clip against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Coulibaly dribbles down the center of the lane, elevates off his left foot and converts a beautiful scoop layup with his dominant hand. Coulibaly’s fluidity is the most impressive part of this sequence, although he also shows some promising — but perhaps uncharacteristic — deft ballhandling.

Even as a rookie, Coulibaly should have an ability often absent from the Wizards’ porous defense last season: the ability to stay in front of shot creators at the point of attack. He ought to be able to stick with opposing point guards, shooting guards and small forwards. In this play, also from the exhibition against the Thunder, Coulibaly thwarts a drive by Ousmane Dieng.

“He’s long,” Scout A said of Coulibaly. “He’s athletic. He’s got a good feel for the game. He has all the tools to be a really good defender. He can make an open shot, and he’s great in transition. So, he hits a lot of the tools, skills and even the feel threshold that you want from elite wings.”

For someone said to be a raw player, Coulibaly displayed a good feel for the game during the summer league. Although he made occasional mistakes, he rarely, if ever, looked lost on the court.

“I was really, really impressed with him at the summer league, because I think he got better every single game,” Scout B said. “I think he has NBA-caliber size, athleticism, speed — all that stuff, they’re all A-pluses.”

Coulibaly’s weaknesses

Any listing of the areas that Coulibaly needs to improve should start with his shooting. His stroke is not broken by any stretch, but the stats indicate how raw he is. When playing for Metropolitans 92’s senior team last season, he made 36.5 percent of his 3s on the very low volume of 1.4 attempts per game. His free-throw shooting inspires even less confidence; he converted 62.9 percent of his 1.6 attempts per game.

He shot at higher volumes in summer league, which was a welcome sign. But he made just 18.2 percent of his 3s on 2.8 attempts per game and 68.4 percent of his free throws on 4.8 attempts per game.

In the summer-league video that follows, he misses a 3 from the left wing, and misses badly.

“The offensive part, he’s got a ways to go, and I don’t think (the Wizards should be) expecting much (immediately) as far as doing anything with the ball,” Scout C said. “He’s going to play off the ball. He’s probably (initially) going to be a spot-up guy, a 3-and-D type wing, which is fine. But he did show a good jump last year. This is a different league, but I think he’s talented. He’s athletic. For him, it’ll probably be up-and-down throughout the season. But I think he’ll give (the Wizards) what they’re looking for, which is defending and running the floor hard and finishing. Then, with other aspects of the game offensively, you’re just hoping that they will grow and continue to grow.”

Like many rookies, one of the areas Coulibaly must improve is his strength. The Wizards list him at 195 pounds, and no one should fault him for not weighing more now, having turned just 19 years in late July.

“Obviously, his physical development (will be) huge,” Scout A said.

On this play, Coulibaly once again stays in front of Dieng on a drive. From the Wizards’ perspective, that’s the good part. But as Dieng drives into the lane, he appears to use either his left shoulder or left arm to nudge Coulibaly, and Dieng momentarily separates, giving him the space he needs to sink a short pull-up jumper. It’s the kind of play that will become more difficult against Coulibaly as Coulibaly grows into his body and spends more time in the weight room.

Coulibaly’s future

The Wizards intend to take a long-term approach to Coulibaly’s development.

“With him, you see what’s going on down the line,” Dawkins said after the draft ended. “We won’t take short-sighted approaches in the draft. We’ll take the guy who we think will be the best long-term player, the best long-term fit. And with him, it’s going to take a little while, and we know that.”

The point cannot be stressed enough: Coulibaly turned just 19 in late July, so time is on his side to add or improve parts of his game, like his shooting, ballhandling and his physical strength.

“It’s just going to be the patience involved in getting him calibrated to the NBA game and allowing him to grow because he’s going to be so young,” Scout B said. “He’ll be one of the younger players in the league the whole year, if not the youngest player in the league. So, I think (drafting him) was a really good risk to take because he seems to have such positive intangibles. He got better every game (in summer league), and then he just has such a good way about him: how he plays hard and he seems to care about winning and he cares about little things.”

It’s also important to emphasize that the 2023-24 season will be Coulibaly’s first time living outside of France, and that must be considered. As he learns a new — and much tougher — league, he also must learn a new culture.

“He speaks pretty good English, but this is new for him,” Scout A said. “A new environment. A big city. A new culture. So, surrounding him with the right people and allowing him to grow at his own pace obviously is going to be key, especially for his physical development. This will be the (highest number) of games he’s played in his career, and a lot of this came to him very fast. I know this was not what he expected — and even his team and the people around him (didn’t expect it). So, all these things can have a negative impact.”

Scout A also cautioned that Coulibaly’s résumé in France consists of a relatively small sample size against senior-level competition.

Still, Scout A is optimistic about Coulibaly’s future.

“The sky’s the limit for him, really,” Scout A said. “If he does hit, you’re looking at someone who’s pretty special across the league. But there’s such a small sample for him. It’s one year playing at a pretty good level. … (In the French league), it’s not easy to do what he’s done. (Nicolas) Batum could be a comp for him. I know there’s been some crazy other names that have been thrown around; I always hesitate to do that to a 19-year-old kid. But he certainly has all the skill set and the tools to be a high-end player in the NBA at a position that’s in-demand, that’s very much of value.”

Asked how the team should evaluate Coulibaly during his first season, Scout B listed several questions the Wizards’ front-office executives, coaches and player-development staff should ask themselves: “Is he going to bring effort every day? Is he getting better? Is he locked-in on defense? Does he understand his assignments? How is he learning? That’s too smart of a front-office group to gauge anything on just surface-level production. They’ll look at how he’s progressing and how hard he’s playing and the effort that he’s giving.”

The scout added: “There’s probably no scenario where he categorically fails just because he’s too big and too athletic to not have some impact on the game. But it’s just how good can he be? I think with the changes that they’ve made in the front office there’s going to be a really healthy amount of emphasis placed on player development. And he’ll benefit from that because he seemed to get better quarter-by-quarter at the summer league. And it would not be shocking if we look back in four or five years at this draft and say, ‘The Wizards made a really good selection there.’ He’s capable of a lot of really good things in the NBA. I think it was a really good pick.”

(Top photo: Lucas Peltier / USA Today)

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