Analysis: Big man Mbacke Diong could be building block for UNLV basketball

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UNLV basketball signee Mbacke Diong is shown in a provided photo from UNLV Athletics.

Before Brandon McCoy committed to the Rebels last week, it could have been argued that fellow 2017 big man Mbacke Diong was Marvin Menzies’ most impressive recruiting “get” in his first two years at UNLV. The 6-foot-11 Senegal native made a splash in his one year in the states, posting 14.1 points, 11 rebounds and 3.3 blocks at Florida Prep Academy (Melbourne, Fla.), and Menzies had to beat out schools like Louisville, UConn and Pitt for the four-star prospect.

Diong is no longer the headliner of the Rebels’ incoming class, and he may not see as much playing time next season as he would have on a roster sans McCoy, but that shouldn’t dim his star. Diong is still a supremely talented big man, and Menzies should be able to develop him into a major contributor over the course of the next four years.

The first thing that stands out about Diong is his athletic ability and coordination. There aren’t many near-7-footers who move as fluidly and explosively as Diong. He’s not quite skilled enough to harness it yet, but when he gets a chance to flash his raw athleticism, he looks like a dominant player.

We only found a couple of Diong’s high school games online, and the video quality wasn’t great. Florida Prep was nice enough to send us footage of a few more games, and when we put it all together, that athleticism was the first thing to jump off the screen.

Diong can get off the floor quickly and get his head above the rim with ease. Florida Prep had teammates set back screens to give him a clear path to the hoop for alley-oops:

He’s also got pretty good hands, which is an underrated trait for big men. Diong can snatch the ball outside his frame and fluidly go up for shots, making him a good catch-and-finish option at this point in his career. He should be able to finish off a lot of the pick-and-rolls that Cheickna Dembele fumbled last year:

Those types of plays highlight Diong’s length and athleticism, which are his main strengths at this point. As for offensive skill … well, he’s got some development to do in that area.

Diong hasn’t had a lot of reps in the post. We only saw him get a handful of post touches in the games we have video from, and though he’s quick and agile enough to maneuver around his defenders, his footwork gets out of whack too often and he doesn’t possess great touch on his in-between shots. When he can't use his initial burst to get all the way to the rim and is forced to go to a secondary move, Diong is usually hung out to dry:

He got even fewer face-up opportunities, and that aspect of his game is even further behind. Diong is confident in his ball-handling, and he’s quick enough that he should eventually be able to drive past college big men, but that’s probably a couple of years away. For the immediate future, Diong will be more valuable as a finisher than as a creator.

Defensively, there are some natural similarities to Dembele, another 6-foot-11 import from Africa who blocked a promising 3.7 shots per 100 possessions as a freshman last year. Diong averaged 3.3 blocks per game in high school, and much like Dembele during his prep days, most of those blocks came while Diong was stationed under the basket in a zone defense.

Diong is far from an immobile monolith, however. He can cover a lot of ground within any zone, flashing his quick feet and explosive leaping ability to challenge and block shots anywhere inside the 3-point line. He’s not content to park himself under the rim and wait for shooters to come to him — he actively seeks out blocks and has the athleticism to back it up:

Despite being tasked with zone responsibilities, Diong covered a lot of ground on some of those blocks, which bodes well for his future as a rim protector.

When Florida Prep played man-to-man defense, opposing teams tried to pull Diong away from the basket by involving him in pick-and-rolls and pick-and-pops at the top of the key. Diong usually got the better of those matchups, however, as his foot speed and athleticism allowed him to stay in front of smaller ball-handlers in one-on-one situations, and his length allowed him to recover and challenge shots when the opposing big man popped out for 3-pointers:

That defensive package — the rim protection and the ability to move his feet on the perimeter — should make Diong a plus defender very early in his college career.

If Diong wants to be a great defensive player, however, he’ll have to improve his rebounding. He’s not a strong rebounder right now — he consistently tries to box out, but he doesn’t fight for position, and for someone who can get off the floor quickly, he’s slow to react to balls coming off the rim. Small players beat him to the ball too often, and even when Diong gets his hands on the ball first, he doesn’t secure it — smaller opponents knock the ball out of his hands a lot:

There are some promising signs in that area, however. When Diong engaged and focused on rebounding, he grabbed some impressive boards, leaping high above the competition to snare caroms with two hands:

On the final play in that last sequence, Diong sprints in from outside the 3-point arc, knifes through the congested lane, springs off the floor and rips down an offensive rebound. That's an amazing play that showcases Diong's full combination of athletic tools. He may never be a dominant rebounder, but once he adds some physicality to his game, he should be good on the glass.

Diong should also be able to impact the game in the open court. He’s extremely quick to change ends, whether he’s going from offense to defense or vice versa. Once a defensive rebound is secured or a turnover is forced, he can get to the offensive end faster than other big men. And he can chase down fast breaks to block shots from behind. It's one of the most impressive aspects of his game and one that should give him an advantage over the less-athletic big men he'll face in the Mountain West:

That’s why Diong is such a promising prospect for the Rebels. His combination of length, agility, coordination and explosive athleticism is uncommon. Big men are almost never as quick on their feet or as limber as Diong appears to be.

He’s not super skilled on the offensive end — I didn’t see him attempt a single jump shot in the games I watched — but his soft hands and ability to play above the rim bode well for his development. Early in his career, he should make a decent living off pick-and-rolls and catch-and-finish plays. Defensively, he doesn’t control the glass single-handedly, but he’ll block a lot of shots and make it hard for opposing teams to score in the paint. And he offers some lineup versatility — he’s quick enough to play power forward next to another big man, but he also provides enough rim protection to play center. Given a year or two on Menzies’ big-man assembly line, it wouldn’t surprise me if Diong emerges as a game-changing defensive player.

Menzies had a similar scouting report when he announced Diong's signing last week.

"Mbacke is a long, athletic, big-time defender,” Menzies said. “He’s a guy who’s going to be able to come in and give us a great four years.”

It appears as though the Rebels may have a bona fide building block in Diong. And if McCoy turns out to be one-and-done as a Rebel, there’s a good chance Diong will be the most talented player on UNLV’s 2018-19 roster.

Editor’s Note: As the UNLV roster turns over in Marvin Menzies’ first full offseason, the Sun’s Mike Grimala will break down each new incoming recruit.

Mike Grimala can be reached at 702-948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Mike on Twitter at twitter.com/mikegrimala.

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