Northwest Catholic basketball player Badara Diakite.
Jeff Jacobs/Hearst Connecticut Media
WEST HARTFORD — The intersection of the internet and young foreign basketball players is a fascinating place. Information can be, ah, spotty.
Take Badara Diakite.
He is listed at 6-8. He is listed at 6-9. He is listed at 6-10.
Which one should I write down, Badara? You can’t be all three.
“You can write 6-9,” the Northwestern Catholic High sophomore said, breaking into a laugh. “Yeah, 6-9.”
By the time Donovan Clingan graduated from Bristol Central last spring we knew everything about him, from his friends in Little League to what he ate for breakfast.
The 7-footer was that once in a generation state high school player who not only was ranked among the top recruits in the nation, but also stayed home to play. There would be no prep school. There would be a CIAC state title and a moving tribute to his late mom who also starred at Bristol Central. Choosing to play at UConn assured there would be much media focus.
Clingan handled it all. And for the doubters, he has immediately made an impact on the No. 2 ranked college team in the nation.
On the Mohegan Sun floor after Bristol Central had just beaten Northwest Catholic, 56-36, last March for the state title, Northwest coach John Mirabello told Clingan, “Thanks for staying. It meant so much to Connecticut.”
“What a testament to the kids who love being with their friends in high school and still get big-time basketball,” Mirabello said. “It’s such a good story. I’m so happy for him.”
“I’m not surprised Donovan has played so well,” Diakite, 17, said. “He has great impact on the defensive side. On the offensive side, he is so difficult to guard.”
So here we have a kid from Mali playing in his second year at a CIAC Catholic school in West Hartford. Not Putnam Science. Not St. Thomas More. Not South Kent. A CCC team. Clingan was never rated as high as Diakite in his high school class. He is not built like Clingan. He is long, lithe, and like his resume, still filling out.
Diakite, who plays for New Heights (NY) Lightning in the Nike EYBL circuit, is ranked 26th nationally in the Class of 2025 by 247 Sports. He is ranked 19th by ESPN. He is ranked 10th by Rivals.
Mirabello is widely recognized as one of the best high school coaches in New England. He also is a nurturer. At this point, he wants no part of hyping those numbers.
“They put so much out about these kids at such a young age,” Mirabello said. “The expectations aren’t fair for the adjustment and all that. Give him some time.”
Diakite arrived in the U.S. from Mali at age 14. In August 2019, he was one of 10 boys from various countries to represent Africa in the 2019 Jr. NBA Global Championship in Orlando.
He spoke French. English was a foreign language. While media interviews are new, his English has improved in leaps and bounds over three years. His guardian family lives in Bloomfield.
“I am glad I got an opportunity to come here and play basketball, get my education and improve my game,” he said. “We saw what the program is here at Northwest Catholic. The way they were playing.
“Coach teaches us great basketball. It’s like a family. You cannot do it all yourself. You have to play as a team. You have to move without the ball. Sometimes he yells, but he teaches us to be great.”
It is the other UConn center, Adama Sanogo, who is a fellow Malian, that Diakite knows.
“Back home I didn’t meet him,” he said. “He was here before me. When I got here, we talk.”
Diakite was at the UConn-Villanova game the other night. That led Mirabello to joke he’s going to put Badara on the same diet as the muscular Sanogo.
As a freshman, Diakite didn’t take center stage. Matt Curtis, playing a prep year at Avon Old Farms before heading to Fairfield, was arguably the state’s best CIAC player behind Clingan. There also were seniors Hayden Abdullah and Jehyvic Spencer on a team that finished third in the state polls and lost only to Wilbur Cross and twice to Bristol Central.
There would be no loss to No. 6. Wilbur Cross this December. Diakite had 24 points and 10 rebounds in the 94-56 victory at GHPA High School Basketball Classic. He had 21, 12 and four blocks the other day in the Jordan Holiday Classic in New York against Albany Academy. An average game for Diakite this season is 20 points 12 rebounds, three blocks, a couple of assists. He fills the stat sheet for an unbeaten team.
“Badara is very skilled for his size,” Mirabello said. “He is learning to use those skills at the right time. Shot selection, all those things. With his height, there’s a natural expectation. He’s not a low-post kid. We talk about it all the time. Be a basketball player. There’s no reason you can’t use those skills. There’s no reason you can’t dribble, you can’t pass, you can’t shoot.
“His shot has gotten so much more consistent than last year. You’d see glimpses of it and when he missed, he’d get a little frustrated. With a year of maturity, he moves on to the next shot and doesn’t worry about it.
He has worked hard at getting stronger with conditioning and weight-training. Plays that he wouldn’t finish last year, he’s taking contact and finishing.
“That’s part of what we want from his improvement,” Mirabello said. “Get stronger. Improve his shot. He’s kind of a three-level kid. We don’t ever want to take it away from him. It’s good for him and his future. The game has changed.”
Asked about players he wants to emulate, Diakite, who watches lots of basketball on television, answers he has to be himself. Then he says Jayson Tatum, Kevin Durant, Zach Lavine and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
“Look at them, where do they score?” Mirabello asked.
“All over.” Diakite answered.
“They’re basketball players,” Mirabello said. “There is no rule against you scoring inside. He has a nice little low-post game. He can get in the lane for a mid-range pullup. None of it is final or finished, but it has gotten so much better.”
“My game definitely improved in my shooting, passing the ball, getting a rebound and get it out to my point guard for the fast break,” Diakite said.
And something definitely to work on?
“Coming off the dribble and shoot and make a play,” he said.
The growth is constant. The evolution continues. That includes an expanding role on a team that opened the season ranked No. 3 in the state.
“Matt Curtis was a great player for us,” Diakite said. “This year, we have a lot of talent. With me and London (Jemison, a 6-7 junior who is fielding D-1 offers) inside, we can make great impact with our length. Gianni (Mirabello) is a great point guard. We can all be leaders in the game.”
“I don’t think it is a conscious thing,” Mirabello said of filling Curtis’ void. “I don’t think it was I need to do this, this and this. I think it evolved. Those three guys played the whole season. They have a lot of experience. And London has blossomed.”
A state championship?
“Definitely, we have a chance this year,” Diakite said.
Play at a major college? The NBA one day? Those are the goals.
Penn State reportedly already sent out an early offer and a slew of the top schools, including UConn, have Diakite on their radar.
“Badara was very quiet last year and opened up as the season went on,” Mirabello said. “He’s funny. He’s a jokester. He has been vocal. The guys love him.