April 28, 2014
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
You never know where “the next big thing” is going to come from.
Like Senegal, for instance.
That’s where Mamadou N’Diaye grew up to become his nation’s first player selected in the NBA Draft.
Georgia Tech Head Coach Brian Gregory added N’Diaye to his staff on April 18 to not only to help find the next big thing, but also develop him. Mamadou has plenty of experience. He spent the past three years as an assistant at Coastal Carolina, helping the Chanticleers become a Big South rebounding power as well as one of its stingiest defenses.
As a player, he starred for four years at Auburn (1997-2000) then was a first-round pick of the NBA’s Denver Nuggets (No. 26 overall), had a five-year NBA career (2000-01 through 2004-05), then got a taste of the international game, playing in Greece, Lithuania, China and Israel.
The 38-year-old native of Dakar, Senegal, believes the sum of his basketball experiences — all gained within the last 20 years — gives him the kind of knowledge and contacts to be an asset on the court and the recruiting trail.
“When you play for so long, you know so many people,” said N’Diaye last week, while out on the road. “When I started coaching at Coastal Carolina, there were so many people I knew just from all these years of playing in the SEC, playing professionally and working out every summer around the country or overseas. I already knew people that I had a friendship or relationship with even without basketball, even without me being a coach so it made it easier when it came down to recruiting. You get to meet so many people and build relationships and the biggest thing in recruiting is relationships. Definitely my playing days and playing in the SEC, really will help me in recruiting. Also, you have Coach [Chad] Dollar and Coach Gregory and Coach [Billy] Schmidt, who are tremendous recruiters. I would just add as much as I can add but all of them are very, very good.”
N’Diaye’s playing days in the SEC were very, very good ones for Auburn. The 7-0, 255-pounder, was a shot-blocking, rebound-grabbing machine as a four-year starter for the Tigers, as they won the 1999 SEC regular-season championship, the school’s first title in 39 years, reached the Sweet 16, and finished No. 4 in the nation. The next season, Auburn earned Sports Illustrated’s pre-season No. 1 ranking. N’Diaye finished his career, and still stands as the eighth-leading rebounder (798, only eight behind Charles Barkley), and the leading shot-blocker (241), passing Barkley for the record. That he was passed by the school’s current blocked-shots record-holder, Kyle Davis — who followed immediately after N’Diaye — doesn’t diminish his accomplishment.
“[Passing Barkley] was very good but that was a goal,” said N’Diaye, who also left tied for second with 128 games played (he’s now tied for fifth). “Like I say, you have to have a goal. When I started playing D-I basketball my goal was to play in the NBA. Now you have to put in the work and you have to be blessed by God also to be able to do that. That was one of the goals, but after I broke it, three years ago, somebody else broke it. So I guess, the bottom line is records are meant to be broken but it felt really nice doing it. Charles Barkley is a Hall of Famer. So it felt really good to be mentioned in the same line as him.”
N’Diaye didn’t have any kind of basketball-related goals for his first 17 years, as he didn’t pick up a basketball until he was 18 — and that took major convincing,
“I was taller than everybody else and people were telling me I needed to play,” he recalled. “I had a younger sister [Fatou Kine N’Diaye]. She was 6-5. She loved the game. She started playing maybe three or four years before me and she would tell me, `You need to come and play.’ But to me, I wanted to really be good at school and I just didn’t think that basketball would be something I would be interested in. So it took me two or three years before I played.”
Once Fatou, who tried out for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, convinced Mamadou to play basketball and give up the more familiar pursuits — soccer, team handball and wrestling, all bigger than basketball in Senegal — he had some of the top coaches in the country helping him. The most important hand came from the head coach of the Senegal National Team, also a family friend.
While training with the Senegalese team, N’Diaye was discovered by Mike LaPlant, an assistant at the University of Maine, who also was a consultant to the National Team. When Mamadou expressed a desire to study in America and come to the U.S., he enrolled and played high school ball at Maine Central Institute (MCI), under Coach Max Good. It was there that he caught the attention of Auburn Head Coach Cliff Ellis.
N’Diaye saw only the positives of picking up such a complex game as basketball at such an advanced age.
“Some people may see starting at 18 as late, but sometimes when you start early you learn some bad habits that you have to change,” he said. “So starting late, I was taught very good habits from Day One.”
Mamadou would like to help the current — and future — crop of Georgia Tech players develop good habits from Day One, and while he will be a natural fit to work with the bigs, he doesn’t necessarily want to be pigeon-holed.
“I’m a total coach,” he said. “I’m very good with bigs, but my ultimate goal is to one day be a head coach. So I don’t want to be viewed as just a big-men coach. But whatever Coach [Gregory] wants me to do, wherever I am needed, I will do my best job possible with it.”
The opportunity to work on Gregory’s staff was a big reason N’Diaye chose Georgia Tech. He had other irons in the fire, as he interviewed for the head coach position at Florida Atlantic, and, even more tempting, for an assistant coach job at Auburn.
“Whenever your alma mater opens up you’re definitely interested,” he said. “Coach [Bruce] Pearl called me and we had a good conversation but I just felt comfortable with Georgia Tech and I made the decision to go to Georgia Tech before Coach Pearl made his decision.
“I just had a level of comfort with Coach Gregory, and with Coach Dollar. It just felt like home,” he added. “It was a decision I was very comfortable with. They wanted me here and I wanted to be there. So that was basically it.”
Getting to coach in the ACC didn’t hurt.
“That was another part of making this decision, being able to compete as a coach in the best league in the country,” he said. “Whatever you’re doing you want to be the best at it as possible. That was my thinking when I was a player and now, as a coach, I want to be the best coach I can possibly be and I think that means to be coaching in the best league possible. To be able to coach in the ACC is a great challenge and something I’m looking forward to.”
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