On Friday, Garden City Community College post Mohamed Diarra pledged his services to Missouri, giving new coach Dennis Gates his first commitment and giving the Tigers roster an upgrade in its front court.
The 6-foot-10 prospect’s path started in France and saw him immigrate to join Redemption Christian Academy, a prep school in New York. Diarra fielded some Division I interest, but he didn’t meet the NCAA Clearinghouse’s qualification standards. He opted for the JUCO route, winding up in Kansas, where he posted 17.8 points and 12.6 rebounds for the Broncbusters.
Quickly, Diarra rose up prospect rankings, settling into the top spot at JUCORecruiting.com. Its national scout, Cody Hopkins, knows the program and Diarra exceptionally well. So, we stole some time from him on Friday to get a sense of Diarra’s game and what his transition to the SEC will look like moving ahead.
Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
Matthew Harris: Any background research on Dennis Gates made it obvious he would turn to the JUCO market for talent, and we’d heard Mohamed Diarra would be a name to watch. What jumps off the screen is that he looks like a Leonard Hamilton big at Florida State: long, rangy, fluid, and comfortable in space. What were your first impressions of him when you watched him?
Cody Hopkins: The first thing is you see the size, and the skill, and his ability to move. He was very fluid in his movement. That’s something that a lot of big kids are developing as part of their skill set, but their movement may be the last thing to come. He’s smooth side-to-side, up and down the floor. He turned and was able to get down the floor in a hurry. A lot of things that are hard for young bigs to do, he was well-advanced.
He has a skillset to bring the ball up the floor and make plays for others. The difference between the guy you’re seeing today and after a year at Mizzou is he’ll be able to make timely plays for others. He maybe makes the wrong read. He doesn’t get it to the shooter or the dive man. His reading [of plays] and the speed of the game will be what needs to catch up.
But everything else? The tools, the shot, the rebounding, the quick-twitch, the second jump – all those things are elite.
MH: How did Garden City try to use him, and how do you think that will mesh with what Dennis wants to do?
CH: They started the year off running like a motion offense with a passing game and hitting different sides of the floor. They changed throughout the year and had a lot of success by playing a more tempo style, which benefited Mohamed quite a bit.
He did not want to have any type of presence inside. He was strictly a perimeter big. That’s what will have to change, but I think a lot of it has to do with his strength. That’s why he doesn’t like going down there. He gets a lot of rebounds, but it’s not really against SEC-caliber bigs. He would need to improve that area.
MH: You mentioned a motion-based system. Dennis used some of those principles at Cleveland State, especially with his bigs at the pinch post. They’d run some Princeton and shuffle stuff where the big needs to read split action or a weak-side cutter. So, it’s whether Diarra grows into a guy who makes the right choice there.
CH: Yeah. Making timely and purposeful passes.
MH: How much did Mohamed handle the ball? It looks good in the open floor, but is he a guy you’d feel good about operating in dribble-handoffs or as a short-roller?
CH: He can, but he’s more comfortable with the ball in his hands than making a play without the ball. Does that make sense? Like him being able to make a read on a cut, those are the simple things, but he hasn’t had to do that.
The one thing about junior-college kids, especially elite ones, is the first thing that has to catch up is adjusting to the level of competition they’re playing against every day. They’re going to get that in the summer, and they’re going to be able to do some things to help their game catch up. But you’re not doing a whole lot of schemes. For example, you’re going to have to learn when to tag in on rollers. [Garden City coach] Bill [Morosco] is great, and they’re far more advanced than most.
But all the things we’re talking about will come with a learning curve. The biggest decision for him is putting in both feet for Coach Gates. If he does that, this kid has a chance to be special.
MH: What makes up his scoring package? When we talk about perimeter-oriented bigs, we might think of a guy who picks and pops or has a little bit of a handle.
CH: He is not so much of a roller as much as he is a perimeter score and a transition bucket. Because he runs the floor so well, he can catch and go score in space. His skillset is the jab step, the ability to go middle or spin.
You talked about some high-post stuff, and that’s something he could be excellent at. But again, that gets back to adding some strength. A lot of times, defenders crowd driving angles and can be physical. He has to learn to make the right decision when they do that. That’s the one caveat. Is he going to know to drive? Or hit the pitchman? Find a guy lifting [to the wing] or drifting [to the corner]?
MH: This comes down to how Dennis wants to use his bigs at this level. We talk a lot about mobility and agility. A couple of years ago, it was almost a search for a Clint Capela: a good screener who could punish a defense on lobs and not get targeted for switches. But at Cleveland State, the emphasis was more on processing speed and decision-making.
CH: You almost have to play that way at Cleveland State’s level. The superior athletes are in the Power Five. Dennis knows this, having been at Florida State. You don’t pass up a guy like Mo Diarra because he’s got the tools. You have an opportunity to work with something.
I think there needs to be some patience on the side of the fans because there’s going to be an adjustment period. But what’s good for Coach Gates and what’s good for Mohamed is he will have minutes to do that.
MH: We got at this a little bit, but what actions are most translatable for him at the Power Five level? Something like roll-replace? Split actions where he can pop out, catch and make decisions?
CH: Roll-and-replace, for sure. Some pinch-post and short-corner actions. He can pick-and-pop and handle some in transition. You can put a lot of pressure on people offensively on the other end. What he’s going to be able to do is he’s going to space the floor. He can put it on the deck. If he needs to go by somebody — let’s say they put somebody out there like their kid [Zach Edey] at Purdue — he will be able to take advantage of those mismatches.
Not to beat a dead horse, but if his strength and conditioning really improve over the next nine months now, all of a sudden, defensively, he could hold his own in that same position. Right now, the hardest thing for him to do is play defense against five.
MH: That’s where I was headed. We also ask whether a big can play drop coverage. Can they handle changing coverages in pick-and-rolls? And you mentioned the strength component, so a guy like Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe doesn’t manhandle him on post-ups.
CH: Coach Gates has played zone before, too. I wouldn’t throw that out of the equation, either. If he goes out gets a couple more long athletes, is he going to have to worry about Mo in those situations?
But yes, I think he’s capable of all the ball screen coverages we talk about, and he’s definitely a capable defender side-to-side. He’s going to need some help early in the post, especially against stronger players. But at the end of the day, there’s a long enough time frame here for him to get there.
MH: I hate asking for comps, but I’m going to violate my own rule. So much of this is scheme-dependent, but what do you think the final version of Mohamed Diarra looks like?
We have some NBA clients, and a few were asking the same thing. Throughout the year, I said Christian Wood. I came up with that last fall, asked his assistant coaches, and they all agreed.
But again, a lot of that has to do with the adjustment period I talked about. I keep honing in on that because I know him so well. And it was a little bit later before things came together for Christian Wood. He had a little bit different environment out at UNLV.
But Coach Gates has the definite respect walking in the door with these guys. He carries himself so well. A guy like Mohamed Diarra coming into a place like Mizzou from a place like Garden City will be humble, want to work, and be about the right things.
MH: What do we miss when discussing that developmental trajectory or timeline for a JUCO kid?
The physical piece. Your body is going to have to get used to going up against guys who are your size or bigger.
A lot of guys are available in May or June, but a lot of junior college kids have to take extra classes. That sets them further behind because they don’t get to enroll until July or August, and they’ve already missed six weeks of summer school. It’s not so much about the courses as the summer weight program and skill work. That’s the time when you want him to add weight. The physical part comes first, where he can get some confidence on the floor, in the weight room, and see some gains.
And then the next part is, and I think they’ve done a great job of this at Garden City, is studying the game, finding areas to improve in, and watching film religiously. That’s just something that doesn’t happen in a lot of junior colleges. I think that’s helped his development, and he’ll have a little bit better understanding.
The culture shock is when the guys don’t. Some [JUCO] programs don’t even have film software because they can’t afford it. And we’re talking some with high-level players. They might get to their next destination and maybe have watched film three times. They’re just way behind because they don’t know how to study and look at film.
The third is just the speed of the game at that level. It’s different. I think guards adjust better. Generally, it takes bigs a little while because the officiating in junior college is very poor for frontcourt players. They call fouls a lot. They’re inexperienced officials, not making a lot of money, and doing the best they can.
But in the SEC, you’re going to get guys bumping into you or shoving you. It’s a physician league. You can’t do that in junior college. You’ll be sitting on the bench with three fouls in the first 10 minutes. Mo had to deal with a little of that, too.