Leaps And Bounds of Improvement for WVU’s Konate
West Virginia forward Sagaba Konate has put up one of the biggest one-year improvements in recent Mountaineer history, and while that has gotten some attention, his gains across the board haven’t been recognized as much as they should. From whatever angle — traditional stats, advanced metrics or the eyeball test — the Bamako, Mali native has surpassed all expectations.
The most eye-catching of the gains is the blocked shots, where Konate has used his exquisite timing to block (and sometimes simply catch) 73 shots this year.
“The coaches just tell me to go get the ball,” Konate explains simply. “I have always been able to judge the ball in the air and tell whether I can block it or not.”
Ahh, if it were that simple, then everyone could do it. But from last year to this, Konate has improved that judgment, greatly lessened the foul calls he gets at the rim, and provided enough highlights to fill several YouTube clips. That’s just the start, though.
Perhaps the most unexpected of Konate’s gains has been in his shooting ability. He has extended his range out to about 17 feet, and if he has a step or two of space it’s not a bad idea for him to let it fly. Although his overall shooting percentage this year is a few ticks lower than last (52.5% vs. 56.4%), it should be understood that his freshman year was almost all dunks and layups or shot attempts from close to the hoop. This year, ranging out to the key, he has to be covered, or he’s likely to feather a shot through the hoop.
That same soft touch is also evident at the free throw line, where his percentage has jumped 11 points from 63.6% a year ago to 74.6% in this. He’s only had four games in which he has missed more than one free throw this year, and he’s countered that with eight games in which he has canned 80% or more.
Then there’s his offensive game as a whole. Last season, as noted, that mostly consisted of dunks or layups off passes from driving teammates or offensive rebounds. This year, in addition to the jump shots discussed above, Konate has unveiled not one but several moves in the post. There’s a jump hook that he can hit out to about eight feet. There’s a standard drop step. Then, off those two foundations, there’s a step back and rip through, a power step and a dribble-drive. He can step back after a fake or two and make a short jumper. That he improved so much in just those first couple of moves over the offseason is good enough. But that he has continued to deploy new moves and counters rivals any level of improvement from a Mountaineer big man in recent history.
To be sure, there have been other WVU frontcourters that have gotten better as their careers have progressed. Devin Williams went from a dedicated rebounder to an offensive player that could score on those key jumpers and at the rim, but he lacked the explosive jumping that allows Konate to use that hook and counters as a weapon. Kevin Jones had a big statistical jump in a couple of areas between his junior and senior season, but his improvements came as much or more over the course of his career as they did in just one offseason. Konate’s increased skill level and productivity, coming as it did between his freshman and sophomore seasons, might be unparalleled.
All of this is made even more remarkable by the fact that Konate has only been playing basketball seriously for about four years, including this one. We’ve detailed his backstory in the past, and so won’t go in that direction again, but the technical improvements he has made in his game, including his footwork and ability to string offensive moves together, is pretty remarkable at this stage.
The growth isn’t stopping, either. Konate continues to work on his positioning and not reaching on defense. The goal there is to cut down on fouls, and over the last three games he’s committed a total of just seven. He’s always going to have some, given his shot-blocking nature and the inability of some officials to comprehend the concept of verticality and the defensive cylinder, but his improvements have allowed him to to play more than 32 minutes per game in each of those last three contests — more than seven minutes per game above his average.
“If I can cut down on the fouls, I can be out there more and help the team more,” Konate said of his approach, which might result in one or two fewer blocks, but increases in other contributions he can make while remaining on the court.
There’s also his defense away from the hoop to consider. He’s by far the best frontcourt player in the area of hedging screens and cutting off the dribbler, or forcing him away from the basket. Employing excellent footwork, he attacks the screen quickly, and is able to shuffle and force the dribbler on a horizontal path instead of the preferred north-south line to the bucket. His sense of when to leave that and dive back into the lane to pick up the screener, who typically rolls there after setting the pick, has also been excellent. These are the kinds of skills that usually take at least a couple of years in which to become proficient, but he has again beaten the conventional timetable.
The last play of the Oklahoma game clearly illustrates his overall defensive improvement. Just below the foul line, Konate moved his feet well to stay in touch with Trae Young, and tipped the ball away from him. That clipped the Sooner guard’s momentum, allowed WVU an extra second to get back on defense, and forced him to pass the ball. Then, in the scramble for the rebound off the ensuing missed shot, Konate batted the ball free from the grasp of Kadeem Lattin, who looked to be in position to score a game-tying, last second hoop. The ball bounded harmlessly away, presaging more exuberant bouncing from Konate himself as he sprinted to the Mountaineer bench to celebrate the win.
There’s still much that Konate can improve upon. He, better than anyone, knows that he doesn’t have the game mastered. But if he continues on the improvement arc his is currently upon, and maintains the drive that he has shown during his still-young career, it’s hard to imagine just how high he might fly.