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The Close Out: A closer look at Sekou Doumbouya’s recent success

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We examine Sekou’s strong play recently and how his attention to detail is driving success.

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Detroit Pistons Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

In a season full of young Detroit Pistons turning in unexpectedly impressive performances, it finally seems like it is Sekou Doumbouya’s turn.

It’s been a rough season for the second-year French forward. After showing some real promise over a two- to three-week stretch his rookie year, the obvious expectation was that Sekou would expand on that in his sophomore season. Instead, both his minutes and his performances have been wildly inconsistent throughout 2020-21.

The last couple of weeks, however, have been different.

Sekou has played at least 20 minutes in each of his past seven games. With consistent time on the floor, he has found consistency in his game. Over that stretch, Doumbouya is shooting 60%(!) on two-point field goals. His efficiency from behind the arc has been bad which has driven down the overall percentages, but poor perimeter shooting over a small stretch should not discourage Pistons fans.

Most importantly, Sekou has looked increasingly comfortable in his role during the recent, strong stretch. He can be seen directing traffic on offense at times while being a vocal communicator on the defensive end of the floor.

That comfort level has sparked real confidence that is showing up in his performance across the board. But the difference is especially striking when Detroit has the ball.

It’s long been clear that Sekou is a willing cutter when the ball is in his teammates’ hands. The results have not always translated to efficient play, however. His finishing on cuts this season ranks in the 19th percentile of the league. Although he’s willing to move off the ball, the finer points of how to execute it have sometimes been lacking.

In recent games there has been some real evidence of improvement in Sekou’s cutting effectiveness, particularly in his timing.

Watch how, against the Memphis Grizzlies, he waits for Dillon Brooks to commit to a driving Saddiq Bey before beginning his cut. Kyle Anderson is left to defend both the cut and the corner pass to Frank Jackson, which opens up an open lane to the basket for Doumbouya:

If he cuts too early, the paint gets clogged up and Memphis is better able to defend the odd-man situation. By waiting, the Grizzlies are over-committed and Sekou gets the ball at a point where defenders can’t recover in time and, even if they do manage to block the paint, Sekou has an easy outlet pass to Jackson in the corner.

In the fourth quarter of the same game, Cory Joseph drives to the rim and draws attention while Frank Jackson floated backwards to the three-point line. Once Jackson is open for a three and Ja Morant has to exit the paint, Sekou immediately cuts into the open space for a big dunk:

In the first quarter, Sekou waited perfectly for Joseph to turn the corner and Isaiah Stewart to begin his roll which froze the Grizzlies defense and left him another open lane for a layup:

We’ve also seen some of this stronger understanding of time and space on the defensive end which has led to easy offense.

With Isaiah Stewart in drop coverage and having control of the roll man, Sekou sprints to the perimeter to cover the space vacated by the pick-and-roll and because he recognizes his responsibility in a timely manner, gets a steal and a slam:

Even more encouraging is the recognition Sekou has displayed in the pick-and-roll on the offensive end of the floor. Most notably, Doumbouya has looked strong as the screener in recent weeks.

In the first quarter against the Charlotte Hornets, Sekou serves as the first screener in a staggered setting and slips to the rim once Killian Hayes clears his primary defender and the rookie point guard finds him for a layup:

Sekou’s timing is good on the roll here too. He glides toward the rim rather than sprinting knowing that Hayes is potentially being trapped and he rotates his hips to be in position to finish quickly once he receives the pass.

Against the Dallas Mavericks, Sekou heads to the perimeter to screen for Hayes but slips toward the center knowing that his defender is cutting off the sideline. With his defender now out of position, he makes an immediate drive to the rim just in time for a clean layup:

That downhill action against Dallas is yet another area we’ve seen improvement in from Sekou in recent weeks.

Where he’s had a tendency to be a little out of control when he gets downhill, Sekou has notably kept his head up and been patient, as appropriate, when attacking the basket recently.

Nowhere was that more apparent than when he attacked a closeout against the Charlotte Hornets.

Rather than drive into traffic and turn the ball over, he slows down while posting up two separate Hornets and throws in a nice spin move before finishing with his left hand:

Against the Chicago Bulls, he makes a similarly patient drive before quickly planting his foot and spinning to his left with a nice finish that is becoming more commonplace:

That spin move is also becoming a nightly occurrence. Here he does it following a post up against Kyle Anderson to get a clean look at the rim:

As Sekou gets better at showing patience in his drives and understanding how to leverage his size near the rim, his offensive game will continue to open up.

If he has his head up and defenses react to a more under-control drive to the rim, he can find teammates as he does here to get Saben Lee a dunk off a baseline cut when Coby White was keeping an eye on Sekou:

At his size, he should be able to routinely body defenders and make contesting his shot difficult as he does here against Memphis in transition:

Sekou has always displayed that ability to leverage his size while running in transition. And now he may have a teammate who can find him more regularly:

We saw a similarly-lengthed stretch of success in Sekou’s rookie year, but this one feels a bit different.

After looking out of place for much of the year, Sekou finally appears to be reacting to what he knows rather than thinking it through in the moment.

Dwane Casey noted that dichotomy recently:

If he continues to implement what he knows to close the season, he may just find himself with a real role on next year’s roster. Given the upheaval we’ve seen from Troy Weaver over the past year, if Sekou does return it’s a great indicator that the organization believes he’s on the right track.