WOODSTOCK — When Mahamadou Diawara was younger, his athletic aspirations didn’t at all include basketball.
Diawara was born and raised in Mali, Africa, where he said soccer is king, much like American football is in the United States, and he always wanted his future to include a soccer ball. The problem was by the time he was 14 years old, Diawara was 6-foot-6 and well on his way to approaching the 6-10 height at which he now stands at 18 years old.
Family members started questioning Diawara’s future as a soccer player, he said, and he recently recalled a conversation he had with his uncle, during which Diawara was told he was too tall to play soccer and was urged to give basketball a shot.
Diawara remembers replying, “How can I play something if I don’t love it?”
“I always hated when somebody came up to me and told me hey, ‘you gotta go play basketball,’” Diawara, a member of Massanutten Military Academy’s postgraduate boys basketball team, said earlier this week “I was like, ‘what? Why do you tell me what I have to do? I know what I want. That’s what I want my dream to be. I want to be a soccer player.’ All of my family wasn’t agreeing (for me) to be a soccer player, like ‘you gotta play basketball. It’s good for you.’ … One time my uncle, he told me, he called me in his room, and he told me the truth, like ‘son, I never tell somebody to do that, but I called you because I know you have the talent to do that. Go play basketball.’ And I tried it. I didn’t even know how to shoot or whatever, and I go, and I try it. And it worked out.”
Not long after Diawara shifted his attention to basketball near the age of 15, he was chosen for the Malian national team that competed in the FIBA U17 World Championships in Spain in 2016.
After moving to the U.S., which Diawara said happened in 2015, he attended Hamilton Heights Christian Academy in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and played for the school’s basketball program in 2016-17.
Diawara transferred to Massanutten Military Academy the next year when he caught the attention of Colonels head coach Chad Myers during an AAU event in July 2017. Myers was looking for a big man to complement incoming standout scorers Rasir Bolton and Tyrese Martin (who went on to sign with Penn State and Rhode Island, respectively, in November 2017) and Diawara fit the bill.
“When I saw him, I just thought he had a ton of potential,” Myers said earlier this week, “and obviously he was getting recruited by a ton of places based on his potential, but I feel like we get so much access to these guys … (that) if we have somebody with that kind of potential, as long as they’re willing to work, they’re gonna get a lot better. That’s what was intriguing to me. And I thought with Rasir and Tyrese we had some guys that could kind of carry the load scoring last year, so we needed a guy that could move, defend inside, run and rebound, and as he progresses that’ll just be a plus.”
Diawara, the only two-year Colonel on MMA’s postgrad roster this season, and the only high school senior among his older teammates, has progressed to the point where he’s on the cusp of extending his basketball career to the high-major college level.
According to Myers, Diawara has fielded “10 to 12” NCAA Division I offers from schools of various calibers and has received interest from many others. ESPN had Diawara listed as a four-star recruit last summer.
“It’s really starting to pick up right now,” Myers said of Diawara’s recruitment. “Even two weeks ago Syracuse and Duke came to watch us play, and then N.C. State, Arkansas have all been on him a lot recently.”
Arkansas, Diawara said, ranks highly on his list of suitors, and he said he and Razorbacks’ associate head coach Melvin Watkins have discussed bringing Diawara onto campus for an official visit in the spring after Arkansas’ season comes to an end. Diawara said he plans to make a college choice shortly after that.
Diawara has some ties to Arkansas – his sister attends the university, he said, he spent his Christmas and spring breaks in nearby Bentonville, Arkansas, while he attended Hamilton Heights and, Myers noted, Diawara has friends on Arkansas’ men’s basketball team.
The entire recruiting process, no matter where it ends, Diawara said, has made him appreciate how far he’s come in the sport in such little time.
“All the time I just think about what I have to do,” Diawara said. “Every time when I think about it, like when people be checking on me as a recruit now, I feel better. I feel like that’s good, like the dream come true.”
In stats available for MMA’s first 25 games of the season (through a Feb. 6 win over Fork Union Military Academy), Diawara was averaging 10.6 points and 7.7 rebounds per game. Myers said the 6-foot-10 forward has taken his game to a new level since the Colonels came back to campus after Christmas break, tallying multiple 20-point games and “affecting the game in different ways” during that span.
“He’s gotten a lot stronger in the last two years,” Myers said. “I think he’s always been able to move and run, but now he’s getting a little bit better low-post game, where he kind of caught it and just spun every time. Now he’s got a middle jump-hook, and he’s got a pretty good touch, can shoot free throws. I think he’s being more consistent with effort and running all the time and moving all the time.”
Diawara’s biggest value to MMA (27-3) might be on the defensive end. Using what Myers said is a 7-foot-3 wingspan, Diawara posted 31 blocks in the Colonels’ first 25 games.
Two of MMA’s three losses this season – an 86-74 loss to The Skill Factory in Georgia on Nov. 10 and an 88-71 setback to Woodstock Academy (Connecticut) on Nov. 18 – came when Diawara was hampered by injury. The Colonels have allowed over 80 points in a game just once with their rim protector on the floor and healthy.
“That’s the biggest difference when he’s in the game for us. He can protect the rim, so even if we do get drove he can obviously clean it up on the back,” Myers said. “I think another thing a lot of people don’t realize is he can actually get out and move on ball screens. I think that’s what’s kind of helped his college recruitment get to another level is that he’s able to able to defend inside against big guys, but he’s even able to switch and guard some smaller guys at times, contest shots because he’s got pretty good feet. He’s not super-slow or anything. His athleticism, being able to move on the perimeter, has helped him.”
Diawara’s contributions this winter have MMA in line to make its fifth National Prep Championship tournament next month. His goal is to have a better showing than he did in the Colonels’ one-and-done trip to the tournament last season when he said he battled foul trouble and wasn’t winning the 50-50 balls on the boards that he needed to win for his team to be successful.
“That’s the only thing on my mind. … I’m like ‘do not make the same thing happen again,’” Diawara said. “I keep thinking about like if I get there ... just sprint back and get a rebound or like block everything, protect the rim, like do what you possibly can, don’t repeat the same thing you did last year. I’m serious; I keep thinking about it all the time. All the time.”