Bilal Coulibaly, the other French rookie who wooed the NBA

Bilal Coulibaly, the other French rookie who wooed the NBA

Bilal Coulibaly is, it seems, a good French teacher. After the Washington Wizards’ 118-113 victory over the San Antonio Spurs on Monday, January 29, Jordan Poole, the Washington franchise’s fun-loving guard, couldn’t help but jump into the conversation: “Ça va?” “oui,” “quoi,” “tranquille,” (How’s it going? Yes, all good) he said, not without a touch of pride. “Yes, sir!” retorted his young (19) French team-mate, before adding: “I try to be a good mentor for him and to teach him only the words he can actually say.”

As banal as it may seem, this locker room snapshot was indicative of the central role Coulibaly has already taken on with the Wizards. In his rookie year, the native of Saint-Cloud (Hauts-de-Seine, west of Paris) surprised everyone with his maturity and quick adaptation to the realities of the NBA (National Basketball Association, the North American basketball league). In just four months, “B. C.” has already won over his crowd. “He knows how to keep a light touch and doesn’t put too much pressure on himself,” praised Anthony Gill, one of the team’s veterans, who is close to the Frenchman. “He’s extremely professional, but he’s also always looking for a joke to make. He’s always watching me out of the corner of his eye and if our eyes meet, he’ll make me laugh.”

Defensive qualities

Selected 7th in the draft – the annual lottery for non-NBA players – but overshadowed by the Victor Wembanyama (the Frenchman picked first in the draft) phenomenon, Coulibaly has been making strides with disconcerting ease in the wake of a 2022-2023 season that saw him climb the ladder at an accelerated pace. “At the very least, I’d put him in the top quarter of NBA defenders,” said Wembanyama, his long-time friend and former team-mate from youth teams to the pros.

While Coulibaly’s defensive qualities have been universally acclaimed, it was his offense that allowed the Frenchman to turn the tables in his second NBA duel with “Wemby” on Monday, making two shots a few minutes before the end of the game. Nestled in one of the boxes at the San Antonio venue, French national team head coach Vincent Collet and his staff – on an American tour in preparation for the Olympic Games – were enjoying the show.

Like most rookies, in recent weeks, Coulibaly has had to cope – physically and mentally – with the intense pace of the NBA’s 82-game regular season. Despite this, the Frenchman is enjoying a highly satisfactory first season with one of the league’s worst teams – 9 wins in 46 games. “He’s not afraid at all. He always wants to guard the best players,” confirmed Will Dawkins, one of the NBA’s youngest general managers (37 years old), who landed in the federal capital this summer. “He’s a perfect blend of American and French mentalities.”

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