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On Cheikh Samb’s development and potential

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cheik2_madEver since the Pistons acquired the rights to the 7-foot-1 Cheikh Samb last year, fans have been curious about his potential. Unfortunately, most of us in the U.S. are relatively ignorant about the ins and outs of European basketball, and updates on his progress have been few and far between.

But as it happens, a few weeks ago I've come into contact with someone close to Samb (so close, in fact, he was able to confirm that the correct spelling of his first name is "Cheikh" and not "Cheick" -- I've seen both versions in the media, with the latter incorrect version appearing far more frequently).

I asked this person if he'd feel comfortable sharing some insight about Samb's development as well as his level of competition, and fortunately for all of us, he obliged. He's asked to remain anonymous for the time being, but I'm comfortable vouching that he is in fact a reliable source. The following are his words:
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Hi to all, I am a basketball fan from Spain and I recently ended up reading this web page which, by the way, is extremely well documented and is a great source of information for all that regards the Pistons. I was trying to read information published by US media on Cheikh Samb, the Senegalese center drafted by the Lakers and later acquired by the Pistons in last year’s draft. I read the article published on Cheikh and the comments the readers made on him. All of them were interesting and showed a deep knowledge of the Spanish basketball scene and Cheikh´s basketball skills. With this post I wanted to further a little bit the information and comments published since I noted that there is a great interest in Cheikh and I happen to know him pretty well and have followed his evolution for the past three years.

Cheikh has been playing in LEB-2 for WTC Cornella, a team that acts as FC Barcelona´s youth team. The LEB-2 is a competition organized by the Spanish Basketball federation that precedes LEB and ACB as the top three basketball leagues in Spain. The rationale behind the creation of this competition was that it would act as the league in which the young talents from ACB´s top teams would develop. As a matter of fact, six of the eighteen teams that competed in this year´s LEB-2 are related to ACB teams: WTC Cornella to FC Barcelona, CB Prat to Joventut, Real Madrid´s own LEB-2 team, Axarquia to Unicaja, Akasvayu Vic to Akasvayu Girona, and CB Qalat to Caja San Fernando.

This original line of thought of developing talent has been abandoned quite a bit lately since the league has become more competitive and the players are more experienced. During this season, some former NBA players have played in LEB-2. Some examples are: Robert "Tractor" Traylor (former Wolverine and NBA lottery pick), Rico Hill, and Sean Lampley. This latest trend has pushed teams to look for a less demanding competition and more comfortable atmosphere in EBA (Spain’s fourth basketball league) to develop their young players. Some potential NBA talents such as Joel Freeland (already drafted by Portland), Mamadou Samb (Cheikh´s young brother), or Daniel Clark play in this league whose competitive environment is not comparable to that of LEB-2.

As far as Cheikh is concerned, he has had a season in which, despite the injuries, he has been able to consolidate his talent, evolve physically and add some valuable tools to his game. It has to be said that due to the configuration of LEB-2 teams’ rosters, this is a league that does not benefit players like Cheikh. Nearly all teams play with undersized power-forwards and centers which are hard to defend for taller centers because of their quickness. Despite this disadvantage Cheikh has been able to lead the league in blocks for the second straight season even though he has played fewer minutes. These are his stats for the past two years:

2005-06 Season: 29 games played, 26 min, 9.6 pts, 7.7rbs, 3.1 blk (1st in the league), FG: 51.4%, 3-FG: 38.5%, FT: 76.1%

2006-07 Season: 19 games played, 24 min, 10.5 pts, 7.3 rbs, 2.9 blk (1st in the league), FG: 52%, 3-FG: 50%, FT: 61%

As you can see, his numbers from this season are very similar to those of last season which would lead us to think that he has made little progress, but this is not the case. Here, we have to take into consideration several factors. First of all, he has had problems with injuries and this has prevented him from not being at his best. He got injured when he was reaching his best form and returned with only 4 games left in the season. In addition, he plays for a team in which he has to compete for playing time with two talented Spanish prospects that play the same position: Xavi Rey (same generation as Sergio Rodriguez) and Albert Montcasi (has already played minutes for FC Barcelona´s ACB team).

As far as his progress as a player is concerned, Cheikh has managed to strive at gaining muscle and furthering his skills. Here, you have to take into account that he has been playing basketball for five years, a very short period of time. Considering his evolution, it is scary to imagine how far will be able to go as a player. During the course of this season, and using the idle time while he was injured, he added 12-15 pounds of muscle to his frame. His physical evolution is hard to miss when you look at the pictures from last year´s [Las Vegas] Summer League (left) and you compare them to the latest available images from one of his last games with Cornella (right).

Cheikh Samb before and after

This gain in strength has not damaged his agility. Cheikh is not only able to be a dominant force on the defensive side, where he intimidates opponents and is probably NBA ready, but he is also a reliable scorer on the offensive side where he has developed his back to the basket game and is able to shoot from 15-18 feet or further.

Cheikh not only has an incredible ability to jump, which he demonstrates in every game, but he is also able to read the game on offense and has the potential to be a scoring threat in the NBA. If I would have to compare him with an NBA player, I would say he is similar to Samuel Dalembert in that he has the same defensive skills and ability to intimidate, but I think he could develop into a better offensive player. He reads the game better and relies on a greater number of tools than Samuel. He is a smart guy, very mature off the court and I think he will adapt quick to the NBA game and off-court lifestyle. It looks like he might be able to play again in the Las Vegas summer league with the Pistons where we will see if his latest progress and evolution help him reach his ultimate goal: to play in the NBA.
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This is Matt speaking again. For a few more pictures of Samb, as well a comparison of his career arc with another NBA player we're all quite familiar with, continue reading after the jump.

It's obvious that a lot of readers are thinking about Samb -- yesterday I received the following email from DBB reader Kirk, who (as far as I know, at least) hasn't actually seen Samb play but has read about him and was reminded of another player who learned the game late and ended up having a pretty good career:

Gentlemen, I was thinking about Samb's learning curve and how its different than most NBA prospects. The only center I can thinking of that started playing around the same age as Samb is Dikembe. Samb is probably at least even, and maybe even ahead of Mutombo at the same age. If you look at the latest article on the official Pistons' page, you'll see that Samb apparently has an option to opt-out of his Euro contract and could come to the NBA.

Mutombo didn't start getting court time with Georgetown until he was Samb's current age, so theoretically Samb could develop in the D-League for a couple of years and have a major impact within the next few years. I'm not saying Samb will become Mutombo or that he's a sure-fire prospect, I'm just noting that he's on a different learning curve than other prospects. I think its worth giving him a rotation spot so we can keep a closer eye on him.

Age Mutombo
21- Georgetown - DNP
22 - 11 MPG Georgetown
23 - 25 MPG, big role at G'town
24 - Star center at G'town
25 - Rookie year in NBA

Age Samb
21 - Played in Euro Minor League
22 - Played well in Euro Minor League
23 - NBA D-League? (2007-08)
24 - NBA D-League? Rotation player? (2008-09)
25 - Rotation player or starter? (2009-10)

I think Kirk's point is valid: international players who pick up the game relatively late in their youth can't be graded strictly by the numbers that he's putting up today. Instead, you gauge athletic ability and how quickly they learn the game, and by all accounts Samb is progressing nicely.

Plus, don't forget, this is a guy Joe Dumars called an athletic "freak," adding that after the rest of the league got a look at him during last year's Las Vegas Summer League, one Eastern Conference GM offered a player currently in his starting five for Samb's rights.

Until Samb arrives stateside for good and starts practicing and playing against known commodities, we won't know for sure what kind of potential he has, but at worst he sounds like a guy worthy of a bench spot within a couple of years. You can't teach height and leaping ability, which he seems to have in spades.

Here are two more pictures of Samb playing in last year's Vegas Summer League as well as Europe this year: (click to enlarge):

usa 205 cheikh Cheikh Samb

You can tell he's gaining strength just by looking at how much bigger his biceps grew from the left picture (as well as this one) to the one on the right. Plus, for a guy basically described as being as thin as a reed last year, he didn't exactly look like he started out with a Manute Bol-type frame, which is good news.