WASHINGTON — Bilal Coulibaly learned about Wes Unseld Jr.’s decision at the Washington Wizards’ shootaround Tuesday morning. Unseld informed the 19-year-old rookie he would start in the team’s preseason opener that night alongside veterans Tyus Jones, Jordan Poole, Kyle Kuzma and Daniel Gafford.
It would have been natural if Coulibaly felt at least a tinge of nervousness as tipoff approached, but he insisted afterward that he felt no jitters.
“I’ve been doing this since, like, 10 years now, playing basketball every single day,” he explained. “So I’m not really nervous. I was just excited. I just wanted to play.”
When the Wizards traded up one spot to select him seventh overall in June’s draft, Coulibaly’s height, long wingspan and athleticism seemed to explain why team officials valued him so much. However, in the months since, a different picture has emerged. Although Coulibaly possesses tantalizing physical characteristics that make talent evaluators swoon, his superpower appears to be intangible: He faces challenges with uncommon composure. Little, if anything, appears to faze him even though he is living away from his home in France for the first time, is adjusting to a foreign country and is adapting to the world’s most difficult basketball league.
“He plays with a level of poise,” Unseld said. “I think that’s unique for a teenager. It doesn’t seem like he gets rattled. He’s not overly demonstrative in any way, but I think he’s got the right approach.”
On Tuesday, Coulibaly scored five points, gathered six rebounds, dished out three assists, collected three steals and blocked one shot. Those stats should carry an asterisk of sorts; the Wizards were playing against the Cairns Taipans, an overmatched, travel-weary Australian team that had only nine healthy players. The Wizards routed the Taipans 145-82. But Coulibaly still managed to impress, making smart passes, soaring to collect rebounds and hounding opposition ballhandlers.
In the first quarter, Coulibaly poked the ball away from a guard right after the guard dribbled across midcourt. Coulibaly scooped up the ball, dribbled the rest of the way and dunked. The sequence boosted his confidence.
Teammates and Unseld describe Coulibaly — a wiry, baby-faced 6-foot-6 wing — as mature for his age, inquisitive and, at times, a bit reserved. Most Wizards players have marveled that he has managed to fit in well, despite having to deal with so many major life changes. For instance, French is his first language, but Coulibaly has encountered no difficulties with English, which he picked up in recent years by watching American movies and TV shows.
“It’s obvious that he’s having to drink out of a fire hose a little bit,” said fourth-year Wizards swingman Corey Kispert. “We’re throwing a lot at him, and you can tell his mind’s moving really fast. But for how much information we’re giving him and how much we’re requiring of him so quickly, he’s done a great job, and I’ve been nothing but impressed with him. Being a rookie is hard. Obviously, I’ve been there. But being a rookie from a different country at his age is even harder, and he’s doing a great job.”
Coulibaly has received support from pretty much everywhere, including from his mom and dad, who have taken turns visiting him for extended stretches.
He said other French NBA players, active and retired, such as Nicolas Batum, Evan Fournier, Rudy Gobert, Ian Mahinmi and Kevin Séraphin have reached out and offered advice. Mahinmi and Séraphin have been especially helpful, Coulibaly said, because they used to play for the Wizards and know the ins and outs of the organization and the Washington area.
Coulibaly works often with new Wizards assistant coach Brian Keefe, but Unseld also proactively approaches Coulibaly when he senses the youngster might not understand everything the coaches are attempting to teach. In recent weeks, the organization also has hired Alexis Ajinça, a former NBA player from France, to work with its G League team, the Capital City Go-Go; Ajinça can help Coulibaly, too.
Coulibaly’s new teammates have embraced him. Poole wanted Coulibaly’s locker to be adjacent to his, and he urged Coulibaly to ask any questions on his mind.
“There will be a lot of ups, a lot of downs, a lot of growth,” Poole said when asked about Coulibaly. “But … he played pro ball already (in France). I think that’s such a big part in terms of development, in terms of what you’re being taught, in terms of how to approach the game, pregame, postgame, recovery, et cetera. So we know that he’s high level; he knows that he’s high level. We’re just going to continue to work with him and he’s talented. (He has) a bright future.”
Wizards general manager Will Dawkins has stressed the team will be patient with Coulibaly and will not ask for too much, too soon. Although Coulibaly started Tuesday night’s exhibition game, he may come off the bench after fourth-year wing Deni Avdija recovers from a minor back injury. Unseld has said an occasional stint with the Go-Go is not out of the realm of possibility if Coulibaly needs some extra playing time.
“I’m just trying to get better, improving my game every single game, every single day,” Coulibaly said. “(I’m) just trying to be in the gym, working on my game, my shoot(ing), my handle, everything, even driving the lane, finishing. I’m just trying to be the best version of myself at the end of the year.”
For all of his composure, there has been one thing that has frustrated Coulibaly just a bit. As someone who often relied on the subway to get around Paris, he does not have a driver’s license. He now relies on Ubers, teammates and Wizards staff members to get around Washington.
“Our organization is great, and we have great people around here,” forward Anthony Gill said. “If anyone sees him kind of lagging around (the facility, someone will say), ‘C’mon, Bilal, let’s go home!’ ”
Earning a driver’s license will have to wait, most likely until the offseason. Coulibaly has plenty to do in the meantime.
“He’s handled all of this thus far magnificently, to his credit,” Unseld said.
(Top photo of Bilal Coulibaly: Stephen Gosling / NBAE via Getty Images)