FUS Rabat's Aliou Diarra hopes to make up for failed Bucks stint

Aliou Diarra appears to be back to his best in the BAL after a disappointing NBA Summer League experience, which ended in injury. Nacer Talel/NBAE via Getty Images

Aliou Diarra's stint at the Milwaukee Bucks for NBA Summer League exposed the gap between one of the BAL's best players and the best league in the world, but Diarra has come back stronger this BAL season with FUS Rabat.

Diarra shot to fame across Africa's growing basketball fanbase last year due to his heroics for Stade Malien, who he led to third place in last year's BAL. Before his 22nd birthday, which was last December, he clinched the BAL Defensive MVP prize and earned a spot on the Bucks' Summer League roster thanks to Ijeoma Ofomata, who had scouted him.

It did not go according to plan, however, as injury and language barriers played a role in preventing him from getting exposure.

Diarra made a positive impression on Bucks assistant coach Patrick Mutombo, though, but even the Kinshasa-born coach admitted that the young man he took a liking to was some way off his NBA aspirations.

"First of all, it was a pleasure to see a young African and see that BAL-Africa connection. It's always good as a [starting point]. Now, as a player, he had some difficulties adapting to the game to be quite frank," Mutombo told ESPN.

"I think the language was a huge barrier - just understanding the terminology and although we have a lot of young players, there's kind of like some common things that we have in the NBA and the pace of practices is pretty fast at some point. It was just difficult for him and us to really see what he could do, and then he got injured also."

Mutombo added: "He was fairly athletic, if I recall. Again, his shot really was a work in progress. From what I heard, he had good defensive instincts, but we didn't really get to see it because he didn't get on the court much and then he got hurt."

After his Summer League stint, Diarra signed for Morocco's FUS Rabat and has been hugely influential in their BAL campaign so far, helping them qualify as runners-up in the Road to BAL West Division and then win the Kalahari Conference in Pretoria.

Diarra told ESPN ahead of the playoffs in Kigali, Rwanda this weekend: "The coaches from FUS have a lot of experience. They've coached very good players. They've won African championships before (head coach Said El Bouzidi led AS Salé to the 2017 FIBA Africa Club Champions Cup), so I've learned a lot."

On Morocco's famous passion for basketball, the 6-foot-9 center said: "I love playing in front of these crazy crowds. It motivates me. I love the competitiveness - talking trash with the crowd motivates me."

Playing in front of the diehard Moroccan supporters, and then a sold out SunBet Arena in Pretoria, were totally different experiences to the environment in which Diarra first started playing basketball in the playgrounds of Kayes, Mali, in his late teens.

Diarra found the game after a chance encounter with a stranger, who suggested he try it when he was his friend group's designated fruit-picker off a tree in his neighborhood due to his height. He told ESPN that his friends were also a major influence, as they encouraged him to join them when they played.

Diarra caught the eye of coaches with his playground heroics and his career began with his local team, Sigui de Kayes, before he was recruited by Stade Malien, a bigger club in Bamako, with whom he enjoyed an incredible run in last year's BAL with 18.3 PPG and 12.8 RPG.

He told ESPN that he has only been watching basketball for around three years, but now watches intently - particularly the Los Angeles Lakers, as he studies Anthony Davis - a player who often posts comparable statlines in the NBA to his in the BAL.

"My idol is Anthony Davis. I watch every Lakers game and every day, I watch videos of Anthony Davis to model my game," he said.

Diarra still holds hope of achieving his own NBA dream. "My goal is the NBA and I'm definitely going to do all the work necessary to get there," he said.

"[At Summer League] I saw how they work. I gained some experience - I was around very high-level players."

Diarra's impressive start to this year's BAL tournament suggests that he is certainly improving as a player.

His stats may not have been quite as outstanding as last year - he posted 15.0 PPG, 8.5 RPG and 2.3 BPG in the Kalahari Conference - but his ability to influence a team full of stars in an unfamiliar country is testament to his growth. X Ball Africa named him their Conference MVP after Pretoria.

However, Diarra's Summer League experience exposed the barriers which often prevent Africa's most talented players from competing with the rest of the world. Bambara is Diarra's first language and he is still relatively new to speaking French, let alone English.

Much of this is out of Diarra's control, however. For now, all he can do is focus on bringing a BAL championship to Rabat after he fell agonizingly short of taking it to his home country, Mali.

"Even last year, I didn't care about personal awards. I only care about winning," he said. "If I get MVP or Defensive MVP, that's good. If not, the only thing that matters is the championship."

Rabat have booked their place in the playoffs in Kigali from May 24 - June 1. They will be joined by Petro de Luanda (Angola), Cape Town Tigers (South Africa), Al Ahly (Egypt), Al Ahly Benghazi (Libya), Rivers Hoopers (Nigeria), AS Douanes (Senegal) and US Monastir (Tunisia).