Diawara looking to follow Okobo's path at Pau
To encourage the development of more young local talents, the Basketball Champions League requires its teams to register at least 5 Home Grown Players on the game score sheet (if 11 or more players listed, otherwise 4 if roster has 10 or fewer players). Many of these players are considered top level talents in their respective countries and I will be taking a look at some of them over the course of the season.
PAU (France) - Ask Digué Diawara who his role model is and he will say Kevin Durant. But when it comes to following someone's path, the EB Pau-Lacq-Orthez forward chose to go the way of French compatriot Elie Okobo - and Diawara hopes it leads him great things as well.
With Diawara's frame and game, it shouldn't be a big surprise that he looks up to the NBA superstar who is a two-time NBA Finals MVP. Durant is also the reason Diawara wears No. 35 wherever possible - both at Pau-Lacq-Orthez and with the French national team.
"KD is my role model, the type of player I'm inspired by. He can literally do everything on the court. Everything is fluid with his game," Diawara said.
No. 35 has a special meaning for Digué Diawara
The 6ft 8in (2.04m) forward has shown glimpses of a Durant-like skillset in his consistent role with Pau-Lacq-Orthez in the Basketball Champions League as he averaged 3.9 points, 1.9 rebounds and 1.0 assists in the team's first 13 games in the Regular Season. In the French ProA, Diawara is averaging 5.0 points and 3.0 rebounds.
He said the biggest challenge of playing in the BCL was "getting used to the different teams, because everybody is not playing the same basketball."
This is actually the second go-around in the BCL for the 21-year-old Diawara, who played five games for ASVEL Lyon-Villeurbanne in 2016-17 as an 18-year-old.
"I learned that the level of intensity and focus is important. Every game I'm facing some known and very experienced players," Diawara said looking back to his experience three seasons ago.
Diawara joined Pau before last season, and he was happy to see the news that his club would be playing in the BCL this season.
"I was really excited because the first time I played in the BCL I was just starting with the pro team at ASVEL. I didn't get much playing time so now it was my turn to be on the court and have experienced it fully," he said.
Pau-Lacq-Orthez's roster has changed in big ways this season with the additions of veterans like Justin Dentmon and Eke Ibekwe.
"They're sharing with me their experience, how to handle some situations and they're giving me some advice to improve my game," Diawara said.
American teacher introduces game
Diawara's start in the game came in Dreux just outside of Paris when he was around 10 years old.
"An American teacher came to be a sports teacher at my high school, and at the same time my best friend was playing basketball too. I was already taller than most of the kids back then, so he asked me if I wanted to try basketball," he remembered.
Diawara, who is one of six children with two brothers to parents from Mali, said he was doing some judo and athletics before he fell in love with basketball. And his basketball role models were the same as many other kids.
"Like a lot of kids, the first one was Michael Jordan, but my father used to tell me about Magic Johnson a lot, with his fakes and fancy assists. And later one of my coaches introduced me to Durant and he's been my biggest role model since then. But growing up I liked watching Kobe (Bryant), (Scottie) Pippen and Tracy McGrady."
National team history
Diawara's talent landed him a spot with ASVEL's youth system in 2014 after he made history with the France U16 national team. He helped the French win the FIBA U16 European Championship for the first time since 2004 - matching a team that featured the likes of Nicolas Batum, Adrien Moerman, Antoine Diot, Abdoulaye MBaye and Alexis Ajinca.
"It was amazing, my first European Championship. We won every game, we had an amazing group of guys. It was like we were a big family. Everybody was having fun," said Diawara, who averaged 2.4 points and 2.2 rebounds in Riga.
That France team in the Latvian capital also included Killian Tillie, who was named MVP of the tournament, Frank Ntilikina, Bathiste Tchouaffe, Yves Pons and Adam Mokoka.
Diawara did not play for France in the summer of 2015 and the FIBA U18 European Championship 2016 was postponed from the summer until December in Turkey. But it turned out to be the same result … an undefeated run for France to the title, the country's first U18 continental crown since 2006, which was also won by Batum and co.
"It was a great experience. Everybody knew each other, we had no problem playing all together. Like I said about the U16 team, a big family and we were winning, so it was cool," said Diawara, who averaged 6.3 points, 3.0 rebounds, 1-3 assists and 1.2 blocks.
Especially impressive for France were Ntilikina, who was crowned MVP of the tournament; and Sekou Doumbouya, who had his coming out party as he made the All-Star Five despite being just days shy of his 16th birthday.
"They were clearly dominant. And Sekou was younger, so it was crazy to see him play like that," Diawara recalled.
Disappointing seventh place
That performance meant France would be playing at the FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup 2017 - the country's first appearance in the biennial competition since 2009. After winning all three games in the Group Phase, France beat Puerto Rico in the Round of 16 but lost to Canada in the Quarter-Finals.
"It was a disappointment," said Diawara, who averaged 4.9 points and 3.4 rebounds. "We were counting on doing something bigger of course. But the World cup was a great experience, and it was in Egypt, so it was cool too."
Tillie returned to the team after not playing at the U18 European Championship but France were missing Ntilikina and Doumbouya in Eygpt. And eventual MVP RJ Barrett was just too much for Diawara and co. as he poured in 27 points.
"We knew that Canada was a tough team. They were playing good, switching defense a lot and we fell into their trap. Barrett was the leader and he stepped up," Diawara recalled.
Later that summer, Diawara played a year up at the FIBA U20 European Championship 2017 and averaged 7.1 points and 3.7 rebounds as France finished third.
Lost chance for generational triple
Back at the FIBA U20 European Championship for the 2018 summer, Diawara was going for history - albeit without the likes of Ntilikina, Doumbouya, Tillie and Mokoka. The 1998-born France group was hoping to become just the third generation to win the U16/U18/U20 continental triple after the Yugoslavia/Serbia 1987-born generation (with Milos Teodosic, Milenko Tepic, Nikola Dragovic, Marko Durkovic, Branko Jereminov, Dragan Labovic and Nenad Zivcevic) and the Lithuania 1992-born generation (with Edgaras Ulanovas, Evaldas Aniulis, Vytenis Cizauskas, Rolandas Jakstas, Deividas Pukis, Dovydas Redikas and Tautvydas Sabonis - Jonas Valanciunas did not play U20 after winning the U16 and U18 tournaments).
"It meant so much for our generation and France too. We knew that not many generations did it before so it was our main goal: to make history," Diawara remembered.
France lost twice in the group stage but then beat Montenegro and Spain to reach the Semi-Finals, where they lost to Israel with Yovel Zoosman and Deni Avdija and eventually finished fourth after losing to hosts Germany in the Third Place Game.
"It was a bit frustrating for me because the year before with the 1997 generation we lost to Israel in the Semi-Finals too. And then with my generation we lost again against them," said Diawara, who averaged 10.3 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.1 steals and 1.1 blocks in the tournament in Germany. "With the 1998 generation we played against Germany for third place, I remember we had the game under control, but we lost at the end. It was a close game. So there was a lot of frustration but it was a very good experience."
The U20 European Championship in 2017 in Crete led to a major move for Diawara. Playing a year younger, Diawara played alongside one of the big leaders of the 1997 generation, Okobo. And the Bordeaux native had been playing with Pau-Lacq-Orthez since 2015. Okobo's breakout season with Pau came in 2017-18 after which he was drafted by the Phoenix Suns with the first pick of the second round of the 2018 NBA Draft.
"I met Elie when I did the U20 European Championship with the 1997 group and he was a cool guy. The year he got drafted he had a big year in ProA with Pau, he was an example for all the young guys because he had a lot of responsibilities and he was playing a lot," Diawara said.
Diawara thought Pau-Lacq-Orthez could be the answer for him too so he moved to the club in 2018.
"I was looking to follow the same path Elie had taken the season before. He had a terrific season and proved everybody he could go to the next level," he said.
Diawara and Okobo talked a few times while the latter was in Phoenix and they worked out a few times at Pau when Okobo came back from the United States.
"He gave me some advice to improve my game and we did some one-on-one too," Diawara said.
Move after tough season
Diawara was happy to have a change of scenery after playing the 2017-18 season with Hyers-Toulon, who struggled to just a 7-27 record and last place, being relegated to the ProB. He was actually on loan with Hyers-Toulon from ASVEL Villeurbanne with the goal of getting more playing time.
"It was a tough season because I was kind of by myself over there, so I had to grow faster. The struggles of the team didn't help me but I learned a lot at the end," said Diawara, who averaged 2.8 points and 1.8 rebounds in the season.
Instead of a relegation fight, Diawara was heading to a team in Pau-Lacq-Orthez that had reached the playoffs the previous three seasons - albeit exiting in the first round each campaign.
Diawara is excited about the chance to play in the Basketball Champions League
Last season Diawara averaged 5.5 points and 2.5 rebounds and helped Pau-Lacq-Orthez get back to the playoffs once again - though once again the team was bounced in the first round. That led Diawara to putting his name in the NBA Draft, though he eventually pulled it back out.
"Putting my name in the draft was the main goal since I arrived at Pau, and after the season it was time," he said. "I had some good feed-back but with my agent we decided to pull it out because we thought it would be better for me to go back one year to Pau and we had the Basketball Champions League so it would be better to show myself."
With Pau-Lacq-Orthez already having been eliminated from the playoffs, Diawara has one more game in the BCL to showcase his skillset on the European club landscape.
"Individually my goal is really to take the next step, to prove that I can go to the next level, to show my progress," he said.
Progress that is being made because he followed the path of Elie Okobo.