Cheickna Dembele has remarkable potential. The 6-foot-10 Mali native is a recent convert to basketball and still learning how to make his prodigious physical skills work for him, so some rough edges are to be expected. But he clearly possesses the natural talent to become a game-changing player at the Division I level, and given time to develop, he could eventually become a star for the Rebels. That upside makes him one of the most important prospects in Marvin Menzies’ initial recruiting class.
The only kink in that development plan is that there are no other true centers on the roster as of now, which means Dembele may have to play big minutes immediately as a freshman. Is the inexperienced big man ready for that kind of responsibility? Or will too much playing time expose him as a too-raw project?
In an effort to learn more about Dembele and better assess his readiness to contribute, I watched as much prep footage as I could find. Dembele only played one year of high school ball after coming over from Mali, so there wasn’t a ton of game tape. But I managed to find two full games online, and though that’s not a huge sample size, some traits did stand out.
Over the course of two games, it looked to me like Dembele has a ways to go before he’s ready to make a big impact for the Rebels. His inexperience is evident in just about every aspect of the game, and the only way to conquer that is with time. But that doesn’t mean he can’t contribute as he learns.
The area where Dembele is most ready to step in and produce right away is on the defensive end, as a rim protector. That may seem obvious, as he has the kind of size and length that can’t be taught, but he also has a knack for blocking shots. Dembele’s high school team took advantage of that by parking him under the basket in a zone defense and asking him to contest every shot inside of 15 feet, and he pursued that assignment with fervor, swatting ton of shots:
You can see how his length and timing affects just about every shot attempted near the rim. He’s not over-aggressive and waits for the shot to be released before committing to the block attempt, and his length still allows him to reject layups easily. That rim protection is a hugely valuable asset for a defense, and even though Dembele is mostly swatting smaller players and inferior athletes in these clips, it’s a skill that should translate to the college level relatively quickly.
Even when Dembele doesn’t block shots, he does a good job of challenging them. He regularly turns jump shots into fadeaways and layups into reverse layup attempts, increasing the degree of difficulty for the offense:
Dembele doesn’t block as many shots when he has to come out from under the basket, even if it’s just a step or two. He’s not great at reading driving lanes or diagnosing plays as they develop, so his defensive value is limited pretty much entirely to rim protection. His high school coach took advantage of that by running a simple defensive scheme that anchored Dembele under the basket 100 percent of the time. That won’t work in college, so Dembele is going to have to learn the other aspects of defense in order to stay on the floor.
He’s also going to have to learn the rules of verticality. When Dembele tries to hold his ground against a driving ball-handler and challenge a shot with vertical length—which is legal—he has a bad habit of extending his arms at an angle instead of straight up. That’s a defensive foul and he got called for it four times in the two games I saw:
Verticality is an important weapon for rim protectors. If Dembele can learn how to do it without fouling, and learn how to play better team defense, he should be a plus defender in the paint for UNLV. Whether both of those things will happen in his first year is the big question.
If Dembele doesn’t make an impact as a rim protector, he’s not going to see a lot of playing time. In the games I saw, his defensive rebounding was sub-par, especially considering his size advantage over his opponents. Dembele is inconsistent when boxing out—sometimes he’ll do it, and other times he’ll forget completely. And when he does put a body on someone, he’ll often make initial contact and then let the opponent slip past him, costing him rebounding positioning:
These are technique issues to be expected of someone who is just picking up the game, but they still have to be corrected before Dembele has any hope of matching up against the big men of the Mountain West and wining rebounding battles.
Offensively, Dembele is extremely limited. He is not comfortable with the ball in his hands and often labored to complete individual dribbles in the games I watched. His prep team only threw the ball to him in the post a handful of times, and Dembele responded with moves that could best be described as works in progress:
He shows a soft touch on his jump hooks, and looks fairly competent from the left block, where he can power dribble into the middle of the lane and shoot a jump hook over his left shoulder. That’s a fairly basic move though, and the rest of his repertoire is lacking. Dembele is probably years away from being a reliable post option, but the good news for UNLV is that Menzies has a history of coaching up big men and turning them into productive back-to-the-basket options. If anyone can make Dembele playable down low, it’s Menzies.
In the meantime, most of Dembele’s offensive production is going to come on catch-and-finish plays around the basket. Unfortunately, he struggled greatly in this area in the games I watched. I counted six plays where a ball-handler penetrated and found Dembele with an interior pass, setting him up for easy finishing opportunities. Dembele flat-out dropped four of the six passes:
When Dembele did manage to catch the ball, he had difficulty finishing. On plays where he’s not able to dunk the ball or finish with an uncontested layup, his touch is inconsistent and he often rushes his shot, despite the fact that there weren’t really any opponents who could contest his shots without fouling. That resulted in some easy misses:
There are some good signs, however. Dembele is a plus athlete for his size and runs the floor pretty well, although his high school team never really took advantage of it in the games I watched. Dembele is also a good free-throw shooter, as he shot 77 percent for the season and made 7-of-9 from the line in the two games I found. So there are some skills upon which he can build.
But the bottom line is that Dembele is going to have to block shots in order to justify any significant playing time as a freshman. He’s not well versed in team defense, he doesn’t hold his ground as a rebounder, and his offensive game is simply too raw to warrant big minutes. If he provides rim protection as a freshman, that will buy him time to develop the rest of his game. And if you’re a UNLV fan, you have to feel confident that Menzies knows what he’s doing when it comes to coaching raw post prospects like Dembele. For that reason alone, Dembele’s potential is worth the gamble for the Rebels.