Bilal Coulibaly: Growth Meets Opportunity
Our own Nathan Grubel examines Bilal Coulibaly's game over the last few seasons and why his recent success is a case of preparation and potential meeting opportunity.
Some of the most successful people in this world will tell you that there are no guarantees to make it in life: you get one shot to prove yourself, so you better be prepared when that opportunity comes.
That personifies Bilal Coulibaly and his professional season in France. After starting out not even anywhere close to preseason rankings and big boards, Coulibaly’s rise to become a potential lottery pick is without a doubt one of the best stories of the 2023 NBA Draft.
This is why there has been a flurry of recent articles and podcasts to educate the general public about who Coulibaly is and what they should expect when they’re watching Victor Wembanyama and Metropolitans 92 in the playoffs of Jeep Elite.
What hasn’t been discussed enough, or portrayed in the greatest light, is that Coulibaly isn’t just a mere flash in the postseason pan. Yes, he’s getting real minutes and a legitimate role on a team looking to win its first championship. But what Coulibaly is doing on the floor has been in the making for the past year and a half now in the LNB Espoirs U21 French League.
For anyone who either hasn’t been able to watch some earlier film of Coulibaly or doesn’t have access to the tape, I wanted to break down the journey he’s been on over the course of the last few seasons and why his drastic rise up draft boards is because he’s been preparing for this very chance to shine in the spotlight.
From last year through the current playoff stretch, let’s take a look at how Coulibaly has developed on both sides of the ball AND offer up a comparison to a prospect who also took a meteoric rise during his last season before the pre-draft process and came from a more raw beginning than scouts and evaluators would care to admit.
This is a story of when growth meets opportunity.
*All statistics courtesy of Synergy Sports and RealGM and are as of 6/9/2023*
The Foundation: LNB Espoirs 2021-22
26 GP, 15 GS, 27.3 MPG
11.8 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 1.9 APG, 1.6 SPG, 1.0 BPG, 1.8 TOV
45.4/20.9/67.5 Shooting Splits (3.3 3PA, 2.9 FTA), 20.2 PER, 52.1 TS%
Going back to last season and watching the tape from Espoirs, it’s almost as if I was watching a completely different player than who I am now present day.
That’s because Bilal Coulibaly wasn’t operating on the court in the same ways. There were some positive flashes for sure, but continuing to adjust to a growth spurt that reportedly landed him between 6’6” to 6’7” with a 7’2” wingspan, Coulibaly was viewed as a guard prospect who was looking to find his role on the floor in which he could stick.
His production overall wasn’t bad: nearly 12 points a night against his peers is a decent number while also shooting 45.4% from the field and showing some signs as a positional rebounder and defensive playmaker. There’s a reason why his team would win games when he had a productive outing.
But breaking down where the majority of that production came from, one can come to a sound conclusion that Coulibaly projected more so as a role player at this stage and option off the bench when he was draft eligible compared to a starter-level prospect or more.
The obvious plus skills for Coulibaly were the same then as they are now. His ability to attack the basket with force off an explosive first step set him apart as a driver, especially in transition situations. His ability to burst out in front of defenders trying to catch up and get back to cut him off and finish above the rim with ease off one or two feet catches the eye of anyone going through his highlight reel.
That’s not to mention his approach to cutting and taking advantage of lapses in defensive coverages changed the complexion of possessions because he could single-handedly create something from nothing if a play broke down. He’s an excellent backdoor cutter, and it helps that he’s a high-level rim finisher overall, even dating back to last season (69.7% at the basket, 64.4% in transition, and 68% on cuts).
These skills were clearly his most efficient ways to generate offense, as he was very comfortable as a slasher and downhill driver. The ways in which he finished at the rim on either side of the basket, his body control, soft touch, and dunking ability all made him feel like he was athletically a step or two ahead of his competition. And that speed, not to mention his instincts and anticipation, also made him a great two-way game partner in the form of give-and-go action.
Thankfully, that wasn’t all Coulibaly displayed, though, as he did get quite a number of opportunities to prove there was more there from a primary ball-handler perspective. Coulibaly’s top two play types were (naturally) spot-up shots and pick-and-roll sets as the ball-handler.
Going through his tape in both situations, however, wasn’t pretty at times.
Starting in pick-and-roll, Coulibaly had success as a driver very similar to his brightest moments when he had an open lane on the break. Whether accepting or rejecting the screen, Coulibaly made the most of an open lane and could knife through defenses off that initial step with his footwork and balance toeing the tightrope.
These opportunities weren’t extensive or as productive as they could’ve been though, as Coulibaly’s game was predicated on initial reads at the top. If he couldn’t find an open driving lane, more often than not he would pass on the play type altogether and swing the ball to his partner on the wing to make something happen offensively.
Or, if he did accept the screen and take that leap, Coulibaly didn’t have an understanding of the cadence that takes place in reading how certain defenders are responding in pick-and-roll actions. The timing, rhythm, pace, and vision weren’t there consistently for him despite making some occasionally nice dishes to a roll man with a pocket pass or lob over the top for an easy finish.
His hesitation to further explore the studio space in pick-and-roll was likely because of the lack of faith in his jump shot, which a year ago certainly had plenty of issues (still does to an extent) because of both his inconsistent base and release. Coulibaly didn’t have great control over squaring up off the bounce, and he really struggled to find a consistent release at the top of his jump on the shot. Both of these issues, along with how slow he was to bring the ball up in general, threw his shot off at different angles as well as catapulted it forward at times for bad misses off the backboard (20.8% on looks off the bounce).
Without a pull-up jumper to rely upon, it made it that much more difficult for Coulibaly to score at will in pick-and-roll situations. It’s one thing to have that explosive step to take the space on the court in front of you, but without the multi-level passing vision or mid-range game, the rest of his offensive threat falls apart and did so even at the junior level.
In regards to his spot-up shooting, those same issues plagued him on the wing. Sure, he had times where he was able to get himself set and had the space to get his shot up for a make, but defenders were able to change the speed of his shot with hard closeouts. Even if defenders weren’t in his vicinity, Coulibaly wasn’t consistently prepped to shoot the ball off the catch leading to his fair share of misses (23.9% on catch-and-shoot looks).
Where I was most disappointed with his production and film during this study was on the defensive side of the ball. I have not seen a more drastic leap on that end of the floor by a prospect year-over-year that I can easily think of off the top of my head (certainly a spoiler for how good it gets later on).
There are certainly moments where he stuck with his man, forced a miss, used his hands to poke the ball free, or even jumped a passing lane to get a steal out on the break. But the lapses in his overall feel defensively were apparent coming back to his technique.
The amount of space Coulibaly gave opposing ball handlers, how far back he sagged off in certain zone coverages, and his lack of awareness defending away from the ball led to poorly timed and executed closeouts that completely gave the offensive player the advantage if they utilized a fake correctly. Coulibaly’s processing just wasn’t there, like he was still trying to figure out what was going on in front of him before worrying about others around or behind him.
I would make the argument that opponents shooting 31.8% against Coulibaly when he was in the vicinity of action wasn’t entirely because he was making the correct decisions and contests on said looks. His rawness on defense certainly surprised me, but the tools were still there to get ideas of what he could become given his length, quickness, hip flexibility, and hands.
Still, none of this exactly screams “lottery prospect” when projecting ahead. Mixed levels of production in a U21 league likely left scouts a bit to be desired if they were evaluating him ahead of the 2023 NBA Draft cycle, in which he would be eligible to declare if he so chose to.
Luckily, the story of Coulibaly’s development was far from over, as he would come into the next season with a vengeance.
The Ascension: LNB Espoirs 2022-23
16 GP, 16 GS, 32.1 MPG
21.9 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 2.5 APG, 2.6 SPG, 1.2 BPG, 2.8 TOV
53/32.4/76.6 Shooting Splits (4.3 3PA, 6.7 FTA), 29.1 PER, 62.7 TS%
Buckle up, because this is where Bilal Coulibaly’s journey starts getting good.
Healthy skepticism is completely fair in any evaluation setting. Not everyone is familiar with other leagues of play for prospects outside of college basketball, so it’s just to criticize and critique how production in one setting can properly translate to the next level, or at least compare to the NCAA’s Division I over in the United States.
That being said though, I’ve generally gone by the notion that dominance should be taken as dominance. When a player is THAT productive in a certain setting, either that output should be taken at face value OR at least taken more seriously in terms of questioning what could happen in an expanded role up at another level.
Coulibaly flat-out destroyed competition during his 2022-23 run in Espoirs. His scoring, rebounding, assisting, defensive production, and shooting splits all took massive jumps in effectiveness, as his percentages across the board ticked up in the way that they should with another year of development and opportunity.
Coming back to some of the areas that he struggled in the prior year (because yeah, he’s still a freaking awesome cutter/driver/transition finisher), the confidence was far more noticeable in pick-and-roll actions.
Gone were his hesitations to get a step on the defender and make something happen even if he couldn’t see the next read to make from a passing perspective. Coulibaly was eager to take the space that was rightfully his whether accepting or rejecting the screen, and stepping into mid-range jumpers with an improved form. The timing on his decisions to propel forward, and quickness in determining what action he needed to take working off screens, clearly took a major step in the right direction.
He still didn’t make his pull-up attempts at a high level, but the form is already quicker, more compact, and on balance. When he did knock a shot down on those looks, he looked like a star doing so.
With his improved level of confidence working out of screen-and-roll actions came even more windows and lanes for Coulibaly to slice, euro step, and weave through defenders in traffic to get to the basket. His footwork overall when he rejects a screen and explodes towards the rim was impressive and a highlight of his offensive outlook, as he’s able to make defenders miss or walk a tightrope on his way to the rim. That same craft helps him on drives when help defenders read his reaction correctly, as he can contort, divert, and finish on either side of the basket.
Because of these layers in his pick-and-roll attack that continued to peel back, even his passing took a jump in terms of what he was comfortable doing on the move. Again, nothing advanced about what he was seeing from a playmaking perspective, but adding in wrinkles past just playing exclusively off a roll man was a welcomed addition to his offensive arsenal.
The best part about his confidence as a shooter was in his spot-up game as well. Even on misses, the rate at which he was stepping into those looks and seemingly not fazed by the defense was great to see from a developing wing. Still just connecting on 36.7% of those attempts, watching the film shows to my eye a different player from the prior year.
Where Coulibaly proved he needs continued work is in fully adding a floater to his approach. When he’s run off the line in certain situations, Coulibaly’s speed can get him to those areas in which he should be able to stop, pop, and nail a floater either with two feet in the paint or along the baseline. He did knock some of those types of shots down, just not with regularity, nor did he go to that move with a purpose.
Adding that into his toolbox off the bounce would really up his scoring to another level, on top of continuing to get all the way to the basket looking for contact to get to the line, not just exclusively to throw up a layup or dunk.
Perhaps my favorite improvement of his was in fact on the defensive end year-to-year as I alluded to earlier.
When scouts talk about Coulibaly’s game as it stands now in June 2023, they’re highlighting the defense first and foremost. I’ve heard multiple evaluators refer to him as a “pest” and that couldn’t be more on the nose.
Not only did Coulibaly take that referenced growth spurt during this calendar year, but his intensity, awareness, and reactivity all took a leap with his physical progression. Growing in height, adding muscle and strength, and most importantly having a better feel as to what’s going on around and behind him defensively as opposed to exclusively in front of him took his game to the next level.
At this point, Coulibaly was able to cover multiple positions on the floor, guarding other backcourt players as well as bigger wings and even forwards in the post in a pinch. His technique in terms of his footwork, flipping his hips to contain drivers, playing with his feet more than trying to play at an angle to make a deflection or swipe on the ball. All of these attributes made him the type of competitor no one wants to try and score on. Want proof? Opponents went from shooting nearly 32% against him the prior year down to just 24.4%!
Throw in the fact that from a playmaking perspective, his rates on steals and blocks measured out to 4.1% and 3.7% respectively and you’re looking at a multi-faceted perimeter defensive weapon. Those are both strong indicators of athletic prowess on defense at his age.
His screen navigation, off-ball denial, recovery, and closeouts all progressed in the right direction giving him a solid role on the floor despite some of his deficiencies. As a finisher, transition threat, budding pick-and-roll operator, and sturdy defender, Coulibaly’s path to the next level was coming into focus for those who were starting to pay attention (myself included).
And speaking of paying attention, clearly, the leaders within the Metropolitans 92 were keeping an eye on Coulibaly’s progression, as he finally got his chance at real minutes in Jeep Elite playing alongside Victor Wembanyama and a number of other talented teammates. On January 18th, Coulibaly played his first game of 20 minutes or more, as he finally arrived in full where he needed to be.
The Arrival: Metropolitans 92 2022-23
33 GP, 14 GS, 19.7 MPG
5.9 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 0.9 APG, 0.9 SPG, 0.2 BPG, 1.0 TOV
54.1/37.8/60.7 Shooting Splits (1.4 3PA, 1.7 FTA), 12.8 PER, 61.8 TS%
Even though Bilal Coulibaly finally moved up to the level of competition in which scouts wanted to see him thrive as a prospect, the role wasn’t quite what he was used to in Espoirs.
Shooting over TRIPLE the amount of times off his transition runouts and cuts to the rim than in pick-and-roll sets, Coulibaly’s halfcourt usage as a ball handler drastically cut down when he made the full-time move up with Victor Wembanyama and Metropolitans 92 in Jeep Elite. Experimental Coulibaly was shelved, at least initially, in favor of a player who understood his role away from the ball and was on the floor to compete defensively.
His rim finishing, still as impressive as ever, certainly generated buzz and highlights to keep his stock trending in the right direction. Just how much quicker he was than opponents, not to mention his crafty footwork and finishing package, was on display be it in flashes or more consistent spurts on a night-to-night basis. While not stuffing the stat sheet like he did in Espoirs, Coulibaly was finding ways to score here and there while also dazzling every now and then with some of the improvements he made over the last year.
And you know what? The role Coulibaly was asked to play was one he seemingly accepted and ran with. Looking at his tape from this regular season, Coulibaly didn’t try to do too much when he got opportunities. He played within himself, at a great pace, with an understanding of where to position himself at all times on both ends of the floor. His high feel is really what pops when evaluating Coulibaly offensively, as there’s little to no wasted movement from him with great levels of recognition, timing, and spatial awareness.
Still trying to adjust as a pick-and-roll operator and pull-up scorer when given the chance, Coulibaly’s jump shooting overall took another step forward, rating out in the 55th percentile on all jump shots while also making 19-of-49 to this point of his catch-and-shoot looks. The spot-up improvements in terms of his mechanics and comfort level continued to trend in the right direction, adding another level of projectability when it comes to his role within the offense.
If his spot-up shot is good enough of a threat to pull defenders out, it gives him all the more leverage to go to his driving game which is where he makes his money. Should defenses sag off him or leave him unguarded, Coulibaly is at the point where he can make those defenders pay from distance, so it’s still in their best interest to run him off his spot and get him in no man’s land where could still stand to add a more consistent runner to his attack.
Defensively, Coulibaly’s improvements he showed in Espoirs all carried over to the level up, as his ability to wall off drivers, navigate screens, force turnovers, and cover multiple positions all made life difficult for opposing offensive talents. Jumping up a level of competition, opponents shot 36% against him meaning he’s still doing his job on the wing while not reverting back to older habits in terms of poor closeout technique, inconsistent defensive stance, and lack of off-ball awareness.
Coulibaly was locked in every game during the regular season for Metropolitans 92, to the point where he would get stints guarding the other team’s best perimeter player. That level of respect given where was just a year ago was earned, not blindly given.
What’s fascinating to come on the defensive side is what’s come with his developments physically. Coulibaly proved (and is still proving) that he can handle more physical matchups than given credit for. When guarding in the post or recovering and battling with drivers in pick-and-roll sets, Coulibaly can withstand contact and not get pushed off his spots. As a matter of fact, he welcomed contact in a number of games while also playing the right way by using his body and going straight up to avoid getting in foul trouble.
His aggression on both sides of the ball really started to pop at the top level, and has only helped his case to land a full-time starter’s role in the rotation.
And that’s exactly what he’s maintained currently, as we’re in the thick of Met 92’s playoff race for the team’s first championship banner. Who could’ve seen Coulibaly becoming one of the most pivotal players on the team that can swing a game on both ends?
The hints have been there as I’ve outlined, and it’s fueled the player he’s become in the present.
The Statement: Metropolitans 92 (Playoffs) 2022-23
Playoff Stats (As of 6/9/23):
7 GP, 26.9 MPG
8.6 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 1.4 APG, 1.6 SPG, 0.3 BPG, 1.0 TOV
51.1/26.6/58.8 Shooting Splits (2.1 3PA, 2.4 FTA)
The shine is on for Bilal Coulibaly during the playoffs, as he’s getting the chance to show how much he’s grown as a player on the biggest stage there is to offer him currently.
Look no further than his most recent game against ASVEL to secure a spot in the championship round. The opportunities to handle the rock in the halfcourt, dissect in pick-and-roll, size up his opponent to catch him off balance, and slice to the rim. The goofy foot and opposite side finishes at the basket. Oh, and he’s still defending his tail off!
There’s real emotion behind Coulibaly’s stretch of playoff performances. When he’s turned the ball over or hasn’t come up with the made basket or defensive play, he’s worn his frustration on his sleeve. Coulibaly cares, and he knows he’s on the floor to help his team win this series.
I raised an eyebrow towards the end of the regular season when Coulibaly was essentially on the same substitution pattern as Victor Wembanyama, a testament to how far he’s come and how much his team values what he can bring to the floor on both ends. He’s now played 30 or more minutes in three of the last five postseason outings for Met 92, and he scored 38 total points against ASVEL on a very efficient shot diet.
On top of that, his defense has been as intense as it ramped up to during the regular season. He’s consistently guarding multiple positions, sticking with his man at all times, collapsing into the lane and digging down at the right times, navigating screens, and finding ways to play passing lanes and force deflections to get on the break where everyone knows he thrives.
THIS is a player that every NBA team is not only scouting for but is seeing blossom in a playoff atmosphere. The tools in his toolbox regarding his transition finishing as well as his cutting to the rim, defensive versatility, and overall athletic translation are all there. The difference is, some of the other skills such as the shot making and passing have also flashed during the playoffs, and now that everyone is SEEING those skills come to light, the buzz has taken off.
But as I’ve outlined in prior sections, those skills were there and have been developing over the last 18 months. There’s another prospect who I’ve started to compare Coulibaly to who once upon a time wasn’t nearly the type of talent he was when selected second overall in the 2013 NBA Draft.
I’m not suggesting Coulibaly should go that high in the 2023 NBA Draft, but more so to highlight what can happen when a player is given not only time and patience, but the opportunity to develop at great lengths.
Player Comparison: Victor Oladipo
This comparison comes with a large grain of salt, as you’ll see below by the numbers. But there are some threads that tie Victor Oladipo and Bilal Coulibaly together, and those become more visible when determining Coulibaly’s upside and what it could end up being should he reach his peak in the NBA.
After all, I’m not sure any scouts would’ve definitively said Oladipo was in the position at Indiana after his freshman season to declare him the next dynamic on-ball creator in the NBA. There were some flashes that took place, but not everything was perfect with his game coming into his first year at Indiana (at the same age Coulibaly is now, who by the way will still be 18 on June 22nd).
Let’s quickly go through Oladipo’s development at Indiana and identify some parallels between him and the dynamic perimeter talent that has France buzzing.
Victor Oladipo Freshman Year Stats (2010-11)
32 GP, 5 GS, 18.0 MPG
10.7 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 1.7 APG, 1.1 SPG, 0.2 BPG, 1.4 TOV
54.7/30.8/61.2 Shooting Splits (0.8 3PA, 2.7 FTA), 21.5 PER, 58.6 TS%
Clearly much more of a role player who spent most of his time at Indiana coming off the bench during his freshman season, Victor Oladipo’s translation to the college game wasn’t immediate in terms of potential star prospect.
Yes, he was productive in scoring and rebounding (similar numbers to Coulibaly’s 2021-22 season in Espoirs) as well as forcing steals, but that productivity came from the SAME PLAY TYPES that Coulibaly found himself scoring out of the most in terms of efficiency.
That’s right, Oladipo’s speed and bounce were best utilized in transition as well as on cuts!
Sure, he wasn’t afraid to try some things outside of his role as an off-ball rim pressure threat, but there was hesitancy in Oladipo’s spot-up game and his pick-and-roll offense just like Coulibaly because he didn’t come in setting the world on fire with his jump shot.
Making only 30.8% of his threes on low volume, Oladipo wasn’t stepping into deep shots or mid-range looks with confidence, and that hesitancy spilled over into his pick-and-roll sets. Not only was he not knocking down a ton of jumpers, but his handle also wasn’t nearly as polished as you’d find it in the NBA today, as he lacked the combination dribbles and in-and-out moves to get defenders off balance in an isolation setting.
Those same deficiencies reared their ugly heads when he burst off screens, as he wasn’t the best at changing directions, snaking ball screens, and finding ways to probe further into the next levels of the defense. His playmaking vision wasn’t nearly as refined as it is now, so he wasn’t exactly a high-level kick-out threat either.
Now that’s not to say he couldn’t run pick-and-roll with another big. In a lot of the same ways, his sets looked just like Coulibaly's in the sense that he would look to accept the screen when a driving lane was present, or when the roll man had a clear path to slip and score off a pocket pass.
Nothing too complicated about that breakdown, but Oladipo’s burst off his first step, much like Coulibaly’s, was enough to slice through defenders and finish at the rack. His effectiveness out of those shots was at a higher point then than where I would compare Coulibaly at the same stage, but the results came from the same setups out of those actions.
Defensively, Oladipo was already unleashing his prowess back then. His knack for getting up in his man and poking the ball away with his quick hands was present on the tape, and that pressure style of defense made it difficult for opposing ball handlers to get to their spots, not to mention Oladipo’s lower center of gravity gave him an advantage at holding his ground.
His stance, approach, and results were better on the defensive end than where I found Coulibaly last year, but the one-year transformation on that side of the ball has left Coulibaly in a very similar position to succeed. And the fact that he’s grown past Oladipo’s listed measurements (6’4”, 213 lbs.) bodes well for his ability to defend up past the backcourt and handle some forwards as I outlined previously.
Nevertheless, the player Oladipo was in his freshman season was a far cry from the player who DOMINATED college basketball just two years later.
Victor Oladipo Junior Year Stats (2012-13)
36 GP, 36 GS, 28.4 MPG
13.6 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 2.1 APG, 2.2 SPG, 0.8 BPG, 2.3 TOV
59.9/44.1/74.6 Shooting Splits (1.9 3PA, 3.6 FTA), 28.9 PER, 67.1 TS%
Now THIS is where the comparison starts to break away, but keep in mind that Oladipo was 21 on draft night in 2013, so still a few years ahead of where Coulibaly even is currently.
But this is the type of roadmap Coulibaly could find himself on soon in terms of focuses on his development; should he succeed, there is much greater upside in play than someone who is purely on the floor for defense and rim finishing.
Oladipo took those strengths and physical tools that made him so dynamic and used them to fuel the further developments of his confidence as a playmaker and most importantly, the JUMP SHOT!
And MAN, did he make some drastic improvements to his perimeter game in just two years. Oladipo went from not relying on his jump shot at all, to making it the most important part of his offensive arsenal.
It wasn’t just upticks in attempts from three, but the way in which he approached offense completely changed. He was much more comfortable accepting a screen in pick-and-roll, and probing as opposed to just exploding towards the rim.
He consistently found ways to get to his mid-range jumper, which had been cleaned up in a similar fashion to what needs to happen with Coulibaly’s shot. He sped up the mechanics, tightened the release point, and straightened out his follow-through to the point where it was cash money every time.
That leap in his perimeter game opened the door for a more productive, ball-dominant role as a leader for Indiana. The Hoosiers had an incredible season with Oladipo at the helm, and it all resulted from the tools that existed on both sides of the ball along with his improved jumper.
Were there stark changes in Oladipo’s approach to playmaking from this development? Did any tweaking with his handle bring out more of this on-balance scoring? I actually would say no, as the reads out of pick-and-roll weren’t any more advanced than what I’ve seen Coulibaly start to unleash more often, albeit still on a limited diet.
Hitting a corner shooter, finding ways to keep feeding the roll man, essentially one or two-read actions off the screen. That’s where Oladipo’s game boiled down to from a playmaking perspective, and his handle didn’t take a great leap either. He was still very much a right-hand dominant player, who would rather take a longer way to the rim or where he wanted to go on the floor as opposed to switching hands or going to a few combination dribbles to change directions laterally.
In this regard, I actually think Coulibaly has started to show a little more in terms of stringing some crossovers together, going behind his back, and trying to experiment with moving East-West as opposed to exclusively North-South.
But the most important thing to take away is the improvement that can take place when polishing a crucial piece of the puzzle offensively.
Outlook and Projection
There’s no “easy” way to determine what a player can become in the NBA because there are so many factors at play that can curve or ramp up development upon reaching the league.
A player’s fit, draft destination, developmental resources, personal work ethic, and attitude are all things that can change an arc for a prospect, and I haven’t even gotten to anything on the court!
All of those out of the way, there are some really interesting developmental paths that can occur for Bilal Coulibaly and what he could be in the NBA.
Starting with the most obvious and looking at the strengths he currently exhibits now, there is some real opportunity for him to blossom in a similar way to Christian Braun. Another multi-year college player who is ahead of where Coulibaly is currently, Braun still has come into the NBA with a limited jump shot yet plenty of burst, physicality, grit, and rim scoring that made itself useful just the other night in the NBA Finals!
It’s hard not to watch how Braun scored in the halfcourt and on the break off his own defensive creativity and picture Coulibaly doing all of those same things. Coulibaly’s poised in an off-ball role, and is willing and confident to hunt for breaks and openings in the defense to find opportunistic ways to put points on the board. Even as a spot-up threat, the willingness to take those shots has continued to improve and will continue as he gets more reps at the next level. And his defense could potentially be more impactful because of his physical dimensions.
Could his development take the path of another hybrid wing/guard in Bruce Brown? He’s someone who improved his handle from when he started at Miami to where he is now in the NBA, and he essentially polished every aspect of his game despite not coming in with a sure-fire jump shot or composed, non-erratic passing ability. Brown’s growth as a player over a long period of time could represent an optimistic yet semi-median outcome that could warrant a higher look than initially anticipated in the draft. Both are excellent finishers, cutters, and defenders, and they have the foundation to grow as scorers and passers. I would be curious to see Coulibaly do more as a screener in the league, as I think he could find similar success given where his body is now and is still going in terms of filling out his frame.
I do want to come back to the Oladipo comparison for a second though as that one has me the most fascinated.
Maybe there’s just some patience that’s required when looking at Coulibaly through the draft lens. We are looking at a player who hasn’t skyrocketed his stats, pull-up jumper attempts, or passes in halfcourt settings to a degree that puts him with the likes of an Anthony Black. He hasn’t taken over a professional league from a scoring perspective to produce like his counterpart in the offense Victor Wembanyama, or a college wing like Brandon Miller.
But what have we seen on the TAPE that suggests those outcomes could still be present for him to reach one day? We’ve seen the explosive nature of his slashing ability, the footwork, the improving handle, and the willingness to explore a bit now in pick-and-roll similar to how he did in Espoirs. It’s starting to come together, just in an early sense.
That’s what Oladipo looked like his first year in college! And look at where he was able to end up with consistent, focused development and refinement of his jump shot.
IF, and yes it’s a big if, Coulibaly can make similar tweaks to his jumper, I’d argue I’ve seen more on the ball from him to suggest even greater upside than what Oladipo presented when he was taken second by the Orlando Magic.
Coulibaly’s finishing through contact and leaping ability are arguably greater than what Oladipo presents, so there is an even more efficient version of this type of scorer still dormant within Coulibaly if he makes the necessary adjustments on the jump shot front as well as improving on the below in terms of his size-up package out of isolation. Another great separator between good to great scorers is how they can get buckets one-on-one, so making all of these adjustments should help in this regard as well.
All of the baseline tools are there for Coulibaly to contribute in the NBA sooner than people may anticipate. His defensive aggression and rim scoring will get him minutes, the question is what patience will exist from the team that takes him to see this through?
Because IF he’s presented with the same developmental opportunity on a similar timeline to grow in the ways he could’ve if he was a three or four-year college prospect, the results could end up being massive rewards for the initial team.
But should those particular skills never develop and/or present themselves on the world’s biggest stage in basketball, then we could be looking at a journeyman-type wing like Hamidou Diallo, who can play defense and secure highlight-reel finishes and dunks, but never quite put together the other elements of his game and is too specific to find a consistent home in the league.
What separates a player like Braun from Diallo is the passing in the halfcourt. Finding ways to keep the ball moving and serve as a distributor be it direct assists or hockey assists is what Braun developed at Kansas, while Diallo made his jump to the league without polishing those skills.
Coulibaly hasn’t shown a ton of those flashes, and that will certainly help determine his short-term outcomes as a role player, and feed into his potential as a primary or secondary creator.
No matter how this turns out, I’m betting BIG on Coulibaly to figure it out. His toolbox is one that EVERY NBA team wants to invest in for the future because it’s where the league is going. Positional size, length, athleticism, defensive versatility: those boxes are all checked with Coulibaly, and he can help a team right now on those very fronts. When a team is small at one or multiple positions in the league, it shows especially in the playoffs. That’s not the case with Coulibaly, so he already has a leg up to getting minutes.
It’s about what he DOES with those minutes that will make or break his future as a prospect.
But I will leave you with this: the GROWTH that Coulibaly has exhibited in less than two year’s time, on top of the fact he’s still just 18 years old, should open the door wide for those higher-end outcomes to be on the table. And in the draft, it’s about star hunting in the lottery for as long as you can.
That’s enticing enough for me to consider Bilal Coulibaly as early at 6th in the 2023 NBA Draft. And I would expect at this point, he’s a likely lock to end up drafted in the lottery.
When GROWTH meets OPPORTUNITY, anything can happen. Luckily for Coulibaly, it’s meant great things for his draft stock and potential future.