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Cheick Samb is going mainstream

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When the Pistons traded Maurice Evans for Cheick Samb last summer, I figured it was little more than an effort to dump Evans' contract for a long-shot prospect who might not ever play a single minute in the NBA.

That still may be the case, but over the past year Samb has emerged from a complete unknown to a name people are starting to talk about. Chad Ford wrote about Samb yesterday for ESPN Insider, ranking him the 10th-best international prospect:

Africa is still the new frontier in NBA scouting. The league has had a presence there for a few years with the Basketball Without Borders program, and a few teams -- including the Mavericks and Nuggets -- have full-time African scouts. But for the most part, it's not easy to evaluate and project players from Africa.

A good example is Samb. He got little-to-no buzz before the 2006 draft, and the Pistons stole him late in the second round without much fanfare. Then Samb arrived at the Las Vegas Summer League and shocked people with his size, athleticism and ability.

Now 22, Samb spent this year playing for Cornella in Spain, working on his game and building up his thin frame. Over the course of the year, he's gained nearly 30 pounds and is starting to dominate in his league. He had 19 points and 15 rebounds the other night and it seems, in a few years, he might be the answer to some of the Pistons' big-man woes.

I'm going to skip right over Ford's comment about Detroit's "big-man woes," since the only "woe" they have right now is which player to leave out of the rotation. Also, as astute Pistons fans are likely chomping at the bit to point out, Samb isn't playing in Spain's top division, but Tony Ronzone, Pistons director of basketball operations and international scout extraordinaire, claims he's still facing some tough competition. From Keith Langlois on Pistons.com:

Ronzone said Samb is capable of playing in Spain’s top division, but doesn’t because Cornella’s counterpart in the first division is loaded with older players in a system that leans toward seniority.

"He could have played on the first team but it would have been spot minutes," Ronzone said. "The first team guys are 28 and 30 and it’s an age thing there. But there (sic) level two league is comparable to high Division I (American college basketball). Those guys can play."

Ford recently had Ronzone on as a guest on his Daily Dish podcast, where he spoke more about Samb's progress. The entire interview is worth a listen (mp3), but kudos to Justin Rogers of MLive for transcribing the pertinent parts:

Ford: You talk about Africa, The Pistons drafted a guy named Cheick Samb late in the draft and nobody had really heard about him. Even on the internet, the few photos that were available were kind of grainy. Then he shows up at the NBA Summer League camp in Las Vegas and he puts up pretty some big numbers for a guy no one has heard of, and I think surprised a lot of people. How did you find this guy and what kind of prospect do you think he can be?

Ronzone: I think he's going to be an incredible prospect. A great story about when we brought him over to play in Vegas and we're flying from Phoenix to Las Vegas, you know Cheick speaks very little English. He speaks Spanish, French and two different African dialects. So we're flying into Vegas and he looks at me and say, "Coach, coach, this is Detroit?"

"No Cheick, this is Las Vegas"

"Oh I like."

You have to remember, this is the first time he's played or even been in America, and he doesn't really understand our coaches' terminology, but he goes out there and plays really well.

When he arrived in Las Vegas he was a whopping 205 pounds, but since that time he's put on 35 pounds. I just showed some of the staff, including Joe Dumars, a photo of Samb because I saw him last month and the first thing they say is, "Who is that? Is that Nene?" because that's what his body looks like now. His body has completely changed. We're really excited to have him come back this summer to see the improvement. He's 7' 2" with a 7' 8" wingspan, but the beauty is that he can catch and shoot. He'll step out and shoot a three, he'll go down in the post and he has great passion for the game.

Samb has only been playing basketball for only five years. He's from Senegal and he was found pretty much because of his brother, who I can't speak about right now because he's an underage player. His brother was recruited to play for Barcelona, and the GM over there is a good friend of mind, so that's how I got the connection with Cheick. Their mother said that if you take the young one you have to bring Cheick too, and he just happened to develop a lot quicker than anyone expected. We're very fortunate to have landed him late in the second round and we're hoping we've found another Mehmet Okur, but he's obviously a different type of player.

No matter how questionable the competition he's facing is right now, I'm excited about adding a 7-foot-2 center with that kind of wingspan and range to the end of the bench a year or so down the line. Will he ever start a game? Maybe not, but I don't see why he couldn't eventually crack a rotation. Yes, he's already a bit old for a prospect, but his circumstances are unique considering he's only been playing organized ball for a few years now. Plus, under the tutelage of professional coaches he's apparently already made great strides -- not to mention filled out his previously rail-thin frame, which was the biggest knock on him last summer. Consider my interest piqued.

The 10 best international NBA prospects [ESPN Insider ($)]
Futures Market [Pistons.com]
Pistons scout hypes Cheick Samb [MLive.com's Full-Court Press]

Previously on DBB:
John Hammond watches Alex Acker and Cheick Samb