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Sekou Doumbouya’s strong second half proved he’s still a key piece to future

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Doumbouya got more minutes, more confidence, more efficient in the season’s final 30 games

Minnesota Timberwolves v Detroit Pistons Photo by Chris Schwegler/NBAE via Getty Images

Troy Weaver, Dwane Casey, and certainly the marketing department of the Detroit Pistons have referenced the “core four.” That would be last year's draft picks — Killian Hayes, Saddiq Bey, Isaiah Stewart, and Saben Lee. Each showed at points this season why Weaver selected them, and how they could be a piece of the future.

Weaver completely reshaped this roster in his first offseason and nobody was spared as he got rid of every semblance of the SVG and Ed Stefanski eras.

Well, that is except for 20-year-old forward from France. Sekou Doumbouya. Despite being one of the youngest players in Detroit, Doumbouya is currently the longest-tenured Piston.

Doumbouya is the only player on the roster that Weaver didn’t pick himself. It calls into question how much the front office likes the sophomore player and their level of commitment toward him. Does being the last man standing mean Weaver likes your or just that your time hasn’t come yet?

Doumbouya entered his second season looking to prove there was a reason he was selected in 2019 with the 15th pick, and that his hot streak that took the NBA by storm midway through his rookie season was no fluke. For the first few months of this season, it wasn’t looking good for Kou (which, I must tell everyone I do not support this nickname. There is room for only ONE Ku here, damn’t).

To start the season, Casey was straightforward in saying Doumbouya was buried on the depth chart with Blake Griffin and Jerami Grant locking down the power forward spot. This made it tough for Casey to find room for Doumbouya in the rotation.

Doumbouya would play in 40 of the team's first 45 games—however, he’d only average 12.6 minutes. It’s hard to find a groove and play freely in limited minutes. It didn’t help that Doumbouya didn’t do anything to force Casey’s hand.

In these 40 games, Doumbouya struggled mightily. He averaged 3.6 points and shot only 34% from the field, 24.3% from deep. This, no matter what situation you’re being forced into, isn’t going to cut it anywhere in the NBA.

Sekou had his supporters, however. They argued Doumbouya wasn’t being given a fair chance and wasn’t being put in situations to succeed. In the end, the coach doesn’t shoot the ball for you, and shooting that poorly from the field is ultimately on the player.

Things seemed to reach an all-time low for Doumbouya and his future looked incredibly bleak after a game against the New York Knicks on April 3.

The Pistons got absolutely destroyed by the Knicks in this game, losing 125-81—a whopping 44-point margin. In a game full of garbage time, every player on the Pistons played. Everyone except Doumbouya. He was active, too, but he got the DNP-CD. Even Deividas Sirvydis played! But not the struggling French forward.

Credit to Casey, though. I believe this lit an incredibly hot fire under Doumbouya and it flipped a switch in him for the rest of the season.

In the next game against Oklahoma City, Doumbouya showed the kind of consistent play he showcased the rest of the season. He scored 14 points on 5-of-11 shooting from the field, 2-of-6 from deep, three rebounds, two assists, and a plus-12 in a Pistons win. The box score doesn't tell the full story, as usual.

In this game, Doumbouya showed that instead of a lost season perhaps he was taking a step forward in his development.

After the DNP against the Knicks on April 3, Doumbouya’s play skyrocketed and the team performed much better with him on the court. The Pistons would go on to be 6.1 points better with Doumbouya on the court the rest of the season, the second-highest on/off difference on the team during this span.

Doumbouya averaged 8.8 points, 3.8 rebounds, 1.5 assists while shooting 43% from the floor and 20% from deep. His minutes would nearly double from the first 40 games, going from 12.6 to 22.9 minutes per game.

You’re probably thinking, “look at those percentages, did he really make an improvement?” The answer is yes, a major improvement. The story of Sekou’s second half is not really found in the basic box score stats.

Of Doumbouya’s 7.9 shot attempts in the final 16 games, 2.9 came from deep. The Pistons want him taking these shots, but right now he’s simply not there yet with his success rate. This, of course, would weigh down his overall field goal percentage.

However, there are a ton of other areas on the basketball court to score from, specifically at the rim. This is where Doumbouya made a drastic and honestly shocking improvement.

In the first 40 games of Doumbouya’s season, he would shoot only 42% from inside the arc. This, obviously, is quite bad.

The rest of his season, Doumbouya would shoot 55.6% twos —an insane 13% improvement from his first 40 games. Dive even further into the numbers and it gets better. From within five feet of the rim, Doumbouya would shoot 61% on 4.5 attempts per game during this stretch.

To give some context: Paul George shoots 57.9% within five feet on 4.7 attempts, Julius Randle shoots 58.1% within five feet on 4.2 attempts, and Doumbouya’s own teammate Grant shot 58.8% within five feet on 5.0 attempts.

So, yeah, pretty damn good for the second-year player.

What changed during this stretch after his benching against New York was very clearly Doumbouya’s aggressiveness and physicality attacking the rim. An easy way to show this is to look at his free throw attempts in his first 40 games vs. the rest of the year. In those first 40 games, Doumbouya averaged only 0.8 attempts in a game vs. 2.1 attempts per game the rest of the year.

Too often early in the year, and honestly his whole career, Doumbouya would go up too soft.

Take, for example, the play above. Doumbouya cuts into the open area and receives the pass from Hayes (more on their relationship later). Doumbouya doesn't catch the ball cleanly and he ends up going up with a weak layup and barely leaves the ground to finish the layup. The result? A blocked shot for the Atlanta Hawks.

Fast forward to later in the same game, Doumbouya learns his lessons and shows his quick improvement. He receives a pass from Hamidou Diallo on the break and faces a similar situation with a defender around the rim. This time, Doumbouya gets a clean catch and instead of rushing a soft layup, he gathers himself and finishes with a soft dunk after the defender flies by.

Seeing this kind of same-game improvements shows that not only is Doumbouya learning, but the game is starting to slow down for the 20-year-old. Doumbouya only has 1,623 career NBA minutes through two seasons. He’s just crossed an 82-game sample size on April 10 this season.

To give some perspective on that, Pistons rookie Saddiq Bey has already played 1,909 minutes in his NBA career—already close to 300 more minutes than Doumbouya. The point being, it’s going to take time for a kid coming to a new country to play in the highest league in the world, and is also relatively new to basketball, to see and learn the game at a good pace.

Doumbouya also started showing improved confidence and a willingness to try things he wasn’t doing before. Doumbouya chalked this up to knowing he wasn’t going to be pulled after a mistake and knowing he was going to get minutes.

“I know that I’m going to play ... I know coach is going to put me in, no matter what happens ... I’m just playing free right now.” Doumbouya said.

Having the go-ahead from your coach and feeling free on the court does so much for a basketball player, and it showed with Doumbouya.

The play above is a perfect example of that and is one of the best drives of Doumbouya’s career. Doumbouya receives the ball at the wing and immediately attacks a closeout. After initially going left, Doumbouya utilizes a quick crossover to his right to get into the paint.

This is where the good stuff takes place. After it looks like Doumbouya was going to charge all the way with his right to the rim and force a tough shot, he stops on a dime and shows off some advanced footwork to spin to his left after a quick pump-fake gets Thaddeus Young in the air. He finishes with a beautiful left-hand layup and leaves Bulls players shocked.

Plays like this were shocking to see at first but slowly started becoming the new normal for Doumbouya to close the season.

Something many people who watched Doumbouya in the G-League his rookie season have wanted to see is some post-up opportunities. He exhibited the strength and footwork in the post down there and many have wanted to see if it could translate to the NBA. In this stretch to end the season, we started to see more and more of it.

Doumbouya is posting up Kyle Anderson in the clip above, someone who is pretty strong and a good defender. Doumbouya is able to bump Anderson back a few times, before showing off some nice footwork once again with a spin to the baseline and finishes through contact from Anderson.

Along with showing massive improvements all-around at the rim, Doumbouya started showing even more improvement and potential in the post. Improvements on drives to the rim and in post-up situations, Doumbouya showed the Pistons he had taken a big step.

Another area Doumbouya showed he was improving was attacking closeouts. If you remember when Doumbouya sent Tristan Thompson to the Underworld last year, it started with him attacking a closeout. Throughout his rookie season, he showed this was an area of strength for him.

In the first 40 games of the season, the Pistons never really used him in screen actions that would have him popping or flaring to the wing or above the key, something I believe was a mistake. However, Casey and the staff started to utilize Doumbouya in these actions much more in the second half of the season.

The play above is personally my favorite drive of Doumbouya’s season. It looks somewhat basic to the casual viewer, but it was such a beautiful drive from start to finish. The Pistons use Doumbouya as the screener for Lee at the top of the key. Doumbouya quickly slips to the wing, something he loves to do.

After taking a few dribbles in and drawing Doumbouya’s defender, Lee kicks out to the sophomore on the wing. From here, it’s pure poetry. Doumbouya gives a convincing pump-fake that gets his defender leaning towards him. Once Doumbouya sees he’s created this imbalance with his defender, he attacks Jalen McDaniels’ right leg.

This is important—a mistake many players often make is they would attack his left leg, which would allow him to shuffle and stay in front of you. Attacking his right leg, causes him to open up a lane to the rim, something the defender has to do or it’ll be a foul.

You see this happen with McDaniels once Doumbouya attacks. When Doumbouya gets past McDaniels, some help from LaMelo Ball comes in the form of swiping down at the ball. Dumbouya avoids this help by jump-stopping hard into the wide-open area in the paint. Once in the paint, Doumbouya attacks Cody Zeller and is able to use his body to protect and finish an easy right-hand layup.

Plays like this one are incredible to see from Doumbouya and a huge step from where he was at the beginning of the season. Again, the game is slowing down for him and he’s learning.

We also must talk about what #PistonsTwitter calls, “The French Connection.” There’s no doubt the return of Hayes helped Doumbouya to close the season. One area Doumbouya excels in is running the floor. Head Coach Casey acknowledged this towards the end of the season, as well.

However, finishing is directly correlated with playing with teammates who will actually reward Doumbouya for running the floor, cough Killian Hayes cough.

Countless times, Doumbouya would run the floor, seal a guard underneath the rim and not receive the ball from his teammates. The personnel of this team didn’t have many great passers and, until Hayes returned, few players liked to run in transition with the ball.

Of course, this changed when Hayes came back from injury and the duo of Hayes-Doumbouya was pretty damn good. Of any two-man lineup that included Hayes since his return and played at least 11 minutes a game, Doumbouya-Hayes had the second-highest plus/minus at -0.9. First was Frank Jackson and Hayes at -0.2.

If you noticed, on one of the above clips involving Doumbouya cutting to the rim, Hayes was the passer. But, the biggest difference you’d notice with Hayes in the lineup was easily in transition.

In this play, Doumbouya beats everyone down the floor and is able to seal off the smaller guard that's retreating. Hayes, a brilliant passer, notices immediately and throws a lob pass perfectly over the retreating defenders directly into Doumbouya’s hands. Doumbouya is then able to finish after a pump-fake gets two defenders in the air.

Plays like this one were there all season for Doumbouya and it had to be frustrating to constantly be missed and looked off. With Hayes being not only a brilliant passer, but someone who loves to run and play fast, this was a match made in heaven for Doumbouya.

Doumbouya also started initiating transition attacks himself. Many times, Doumbouya would grab a defensive rebound and attack the defense while they're scrambling back.

Encouraging Doumbouya to lead the transition when he can also encourages him to be active on the boards. If Doumbouya knows he can reward himself for grabbing rebounds, he’ll be more inclined to do so.

The above play against the Sacramento Kings is the perfect example. Doumbouya gets the defensive rebound and immediately takes off. Buddy Hield tries to stop Doumbouya at the three-point line, but Sekou completely removes him from the play with his strength. He uses his long strides and length to take two steps from the three-point line to get to the rim where he finishes through contact for the and-one.

Doumbouya must improve from beyond the arc, especially if he wants to continue to take advantage of closeouts. Eventually, defenders are going to stop closing out at all on him if he can’t shoot better from distance.

But, in every other area of the court, Doumbouya took massive strides to end the season. It was looking good for Doumbouya’s future in Detroit the night after the April 3 blowout loss against the Knicks. He managed to turn his season around after that and show people why the Pistons drafted him.

The Pistons have sat through the tough stage of Doumbouya’s development. They absorbed all the punches and drove down the bumpy road. Heading into the offseason, it looks like they’ve cleared the turbulence and are about to start reaping the benefits of sticking through it.

It would hurt to have sat through all of his struggles and now when he’s finally putting it together and showing his potential, the Pistons move him. Another team would get to skip that phase and get a player coming into his own.

Through two seasons of Doumbouya’s NBA career, it hasn’t always been pretty. It has been an up and down road for both parties. But, it’s trending up heading into Weaver’s second offseason.

And Sekou Doumbouya proved he should be a part of this team's young core moving forward. If Weaver and the gang agree, only then may I make room for another Kou in Detroit.