Players like Moussa Diabate are rare. A 6-foot-11, 5-star recruit who can guard all five positions can be a huge weapon for any coach.
Rarer, though, is the position Diabate finds himself entering his freshman year with the Michigan men’s basketball team. Players of his build and caliber typically have a clear path to significant playing time as freshmen. But with sophomore center Hunter Dickinson likely to play at least 30 minutes a game, Diabate — who typically plays the five — will have to find most of his playing time elsewhere.
“I actually haven’t thought like that when I came in,” Diabate said at Michigan’s media day on Oct. 15. “Really the way I came in was just to get better, and see how far it’s gonna take me.”
While Diabate says he’s not concerned about the presence of Dickinson limiting his playing time, he obviously wants to get minutes on the court, and Michigan coach Juwan Howard knows he needs to get Diabate on the floor. But in order to do that, Diabate will have to adapt.
“He’s gonna play multiple positions for us,” Howard said at Big Ten media day on Oct. 7. “He may end up playing a little point forward. Who knows. He’s capable of doing it. He definitely can guard one through five. But offensively, he’s gonna play multiple positions because his game displays that he’s very versatile.”
Primarily, Howard has attempted to use Diabate at the four and Dickinson at the five, a lineup that has the potential to create matchup nightmares for opponents. Few teams have the height to guard Dickinson, let alone two near-7-footers.
Early indications from Dickinson and Diabate are that the combination shows promise. After all, Diabate’s defensive versatility allows him to guard on the perimeter, while Dickinson already has experience playing in a two-big lineup from his time playing with North Carolina’s Armando Bacot for Team Takeover.
“I just feel like I’m able to complement another big man,” Dickinson said at Michigan’s media day. “I’m a really good passer, so a high-low situation is good for me. I feel like I’m able to give them space to operate if I’m not down low.”
For this lineup to work, though, Dickinson and Diabate will both have to develop a perimeter game on offense. If neither can stretch the floor, it would allow opponents to play bigger lineups against the two with less fear of getting beat from the outside.
After attempting just four 3-pointers last year, Dickinson’s outside shooting has been a point of emphasis entering the season from those outside the program. Howard has continued to emphasize that Dickinson can shoot, but last year he played unselfishly with many strong 3-point shooters on the team. For a Diabate-Dickinson lineup to work, though, Dickinson’s outside shooting won’t be selfish. It will be necessary.
Diabate, on the other hand, knows his perimeter game needs improvement. Shooting has been a main focus for him in early practices.
“Right now, the main thing I’ll say is shooting, keep on getting better at it,” Diabate said. “Even though it’s getting better. … I still gotta get better and keep on working on it.”
Within the program, there’s no doubt that Diabate will be able to adjust to unfamiliar roles. At Michigan’s media day, Howard praised Diabate’s work ethic, calling him “one of the hardest workers I’ve ever been around.” Senior forward Brandon Johns described his ability on the court as “unbelievable.” According to freshman guard Kobe Bufkin, we’re in for a treat watching Diabate this year
But Dickinson put it best:
“He’s special, and so he’s going to be really good.
“He’s a freak of nature.”