20 October, 2020
09 May, 2021
43 Amar Sylla (OOST)
David Hein's Champions League Home Grown
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Sylla feeling more comfortable after year of transition, expectations

OOSTENDE (Belgium) - The pressure of being considered a high-level talent is not always easy to deal with. Imagine adding to those high expectations a move to a new culture and a higher level of competition, and that makes the whole situation that much more challenging. Luckily, Amar Sylla has all of that behind him, and it's no surprise that he feels more comfortable in this his second season with Filou Oostende.

Just looking at Sylla race around the court, it's hard to miss his length and athleticism. And just like any 19-year-old, Sylla has strengths and weaknesses in his game. But one thing different than many top youngsters in Europe is that Sylla came to the game late.

A native of Dakar in Senegal, Sylla grew up playing world football and did not take up basketball until he was 15 years old. He admits that he was actually pretty good at kicking the ball and when asked what he would be doing if he weren't a basketball player, Sylla said: " I would for sure be playing football."

Sylla actually barely had started playing basketball when his life took a major turn. He had only spent a few months at the well-known SEED Academy in Thies, Senegal when ACB giants Real Madrid came calling and brought him to central  Spain - though Sylla was actually more excited about joining the club because of its football popularity.

"I loved Real Madrid, but the football team. I did not know so much about basketball yet," he said. "I played football. Everybody plays football in Senegal, and I was one of thousands who loved and dreamed about becoming a football player. I stopped when I came to Spain."

Gracing the BCL courts around Europe, Sylla is flashing some of the promise that Real saw way back in 2015. Through two games with Oostende, he is averaging 3.3 points and 5.0 rebounds. He also collected 10 points and 7 rebounds in the lone game in the Belgian top flight thus far.

When asked what role he wants to fill for Oostende, Sylla offers only: "All I want to do is help the team to win games."

Not just basketball

Sylla can do that better this season because his mind is calmer than this time a year ago. Many of those same feelings from 2015 of moving from Senegal to Spain came back last summer when he left his home away from home to head to the unknown in Belgium.

"It was difficult at the beginning," Sylla said of his move to western Belgium. "Being in the Real Madrid residence in Valdebebas was a luxury, where you have everything done for you: food, cleaning, accommodations etc. You don't have to worry about anything other than practicing and playing. It was both my home and my family."

And Sylla did a good job on the court. He was wildly successful at Real Madrid's youth ranks, helping Real to a Spanish juniors crown and winning the 2019 Adidas Next Generation Tournament title.

Leading the Real youth teams however is much different than getting a role in the club's senior team and he never earned an appearance with Los Blancos. That lack of playing at the professional level led Sylla to making the move to Belgium.

"I looked for a league in which I had the possibility to earn playing time despite my age and a coach who would push me every day to improve," he said.

"For a young player, it is very difficult to leave Real Madrid, and also to leave the ACB, which is the top league in Europe. But I understood that the best thing for me was to look for more playing time in a league of a slightly inferior level but in a very professional club with a well-established and well-experienced coach and the opportunity to play in two competitions."

Happy with development

Sylla ended up averaging 6.5 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in 20.7 minutes in 17 BCL games last season. He also collected 7.7 points and 6.3 rebounds in the Belgian league in 2019-20. Two of his best games in 2019-20 came in the BCL when he had 16 points, 13 rebounds and 2 blocks against BAXI Manresa and 20 points, 7 rebounds and 1 block against Turk Telekom Ankara. He also had 12 points and 18 rebounds against Aalstar in Oostende's final game of the Belgian league before the lockdown.

"I was playing well, doing things right, although I try that every day. If I learned something at Real Madrid, it is that the team is above the individual and that is also what my coach at Oostende thinks," Sylla said.

"It was a difficult season for me personally because I had to adapt to a new country, a new club and above all, to be responsible for myself both on and off the court," he said. "In general, I think I did well despite the fact that the Covid-19 pandemic came when I was at my best."

Staying in Belgium during lockdown

The Covid-19 pandemic resulted in the remainder of the Belgian league being called off. Oostende were crowned champions with a 13-4 record in the league at that time. It was the club's ninth straight Belgian league crown. Sylla ended up spending the lockdown in Belgium and tried to improve his game.

"I was working with the programs that the club had sent us," he said.

One area win which Sylla still needs improvement is his outside shot. He struggled from long range last season, hitting only 8-of-82 three-pointers for 21.9 percent in the Belgian league and BCL combined.

" Every day I stay after each workout to practice my shooting. Coach has worked a lot to improve my technique, and I think I'm on the right track," said Sylla, who has yet to attempt a three-pointer in the BCL or in Belgium this season.

Disappointment with Senegal, unimpressed by Americans

Sylla's 2020 summer was dramatically different than the one he had just a year earlier in an experience which opened his eyes in various ways.

He was part of a Senegal team that was loaded with talent and competing at the FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup 2019 in Greece. In the end, Senegal only managed a victory over China for 15th place among 16 teams, though the team had a chance to face powerful nations such as United States, Canada, Lithuania and Greece.

"The level of the tournament was very high, and although our results were not good, it was still a good experience," said Sylla, who averaged 12.6 points, 8.7 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.1 blocks in the country's first U19 World Cup appearance since 2013. "Our team was only able to practice two weeks before the tournament, and we had never played together. We would probably have been able to win a few more games with more preparation time and more experienced players."

Sylla and Senegal got the opportunity to face the United States in the group phase, where they lost 87-58.

"The truth is that I did not know them and I was not impressed by them. They were good, but so were we. Their technical quality was above average, but we were on the same level in terms of athletic ability," said Sylla, who collected 10 points and 11 rebounds in the loss.

The time in Greece served as a great signal that Sylla still has loads of work to do.

"Every day and every practice I try to improve. I started playing basketball in a professional, organized way very late, so I can't afford not working every day. Those international tournaments help me to know everything that I still need to know how to do," he said.

Fellow youngsters plus veterans at Oostende

In addition to joining a winning club, Sylla also found in Oostende an organization that is willing to work with young players and give them time on the court. Last season, Dutch point guard Keye Van Der Vuurst De Vries was spending his second campaign with Oostende's pro club and he only turns 19 in late December. Sylla said he really values the work that Coach Gjergja  does with the young players.

"He is for sure a tough coach, but he cares about us both on and off the basketball court. I have learned a lot with him, although sometimes it is difficult because of the pressure he puts on us to improve. He is a perfectionist," Sylla said.

But Oostende's roster doesn't just include young talents. It also features the 37-year-old Dusan Djordjevic and 30-year-old Jean-Marc Mwema.

"I learn to live in a locker room: the rules of a team off the court. And of course I learn from their experience on the court," Sylla said.

Familiar face in season two

One of Sylla's main running mates in Real Madrid's youth teams - including the ANGT title-winning team in May 2019 in Vitoria-Gasteiz - was Mario Nakic. The two played together for two full seasons in the ANGT. Nakic joined Real Madrid in 2015. And the Senegalese forward was very excited about the news that Nakic would be joining Oostende on loan from Real for the 2020-21 season.

"Besides being friends and having shared many good experiences when we played for Real Madrid, I think Mario is a very good player, and I like to practice and play with him," Sylla said about seeing Nakic again on a regular basis.

But Sylla and Nakic are not at Oostende just to develop. They also want to win. The team's first game as a new unit was in the final Round of 16 game of the 2019-20 BCL campaign, which Oostende lost 62-54 to Iberostar Tenerife to miss out on the Final 8.

"It confirmed to us that we have to continue working as a team in order to adapt with the new players and with the new systems put in place by the coach," Sylla said of the game in which he struggled offensively with 0 points on 6 missed shots but did have 4 rebounds and 3 blocks. "For me personally, it reminded me of the importance of being very constant and consistent when working on my shooting."

And when asked about the team's goals for this season, Sylla said: "We have a competitive team and the objectives must be to win the Belgian league and qualify from our BCL group. From there, everything that comes will be an additional bonus."

That coming from a young man in Amar Sylla with a much clearer mind after going through quite a season of changes and adjustment.

David Hein

David Hein

Walk into the media tribune of any major basketball event and there's a good chance you will come across David Hein. Having covered dozens of FIBA events, including numerous women's and youth events, there are few players Dave doesn't know about, and few players who don't know him. His sporting curiosity means he is always looking to unearth something new and a little bit special. David Hein's Champions League Home Grown is a weekly column digging out the freshest basketball talent in the competition and assessing what the basketball landscape will look like a couple of years down the line.