Change a constant in Coulibaly’s basketball journey

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Kaycee Orwig | Senior Staff Photographer

First-year forward Abdoul Karim Coulibaly at Sunday’s 62-57 victory over Miami.

By Stephen Thompson, Assistant Sports Editor

First-year forward Abdoul Karim Coulibaly remembers the exact date he started playing basketball.

Oct. 26, 2013. It was a life-changing moment.

That day, on pickup courts in his home city of Bamako, Mali, the soft-spoken teenager began to grow a style of play that fit his personality. In the post, lyrical footwork tells of a background playing his home nation’s favorite sport — soccer.

Further from the basket, Coulibaly’s handle is remarkably fluid and his soft touch around the rim elicits the same surprised reactions that the 6-foot-9 gentle giant’s words do. Physically and stylistically, he is a striking juxtaposition to the thunderous athletes that surround him on the Pitt men’s basketball roster.

In a short span of three years, Coulibaly has already gained impressive experience representing Mali at international tournaments before earning minutes in the ACC. Coaches and teammates rave about his skill and instinct, but his late introduction to basketball and the United States has left Coulibaly with some catching up to do.

Raised in Mali’s capital city, Coulibaly took the road less traveled and hasn’t looked back. He started playing when he was 13 and one year later was attending high school on scholarship in the United States, starting for one of the nation’s premier prep teams at the Scotland Performance Institute in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.

He was far from home for the first time, dealing with not just the regular stressors of being a talented, teenage athlete in high school, but a new culture and language as well. Coulibaly didn’t imagine he would leave his home country so soon, or so lightly accompanied.

“It’s probably my fifth year [in the U.S.],” Coulibaly said. “I never thought I would leave without my family, without my friends. And it was hard, I was young. About age 14 when I came here, so I’m kind of used to it … It’s hard, but it’s part of life.”

Coulibaly’s basketball journey was unorthodox. He started basketball at 13 years old but was a star as soon as he stepped on the court. And his talent meant he rarely stepped off during games. That’s made his transition to college difficult. So far, Coulibaly has appeared in only 15 of Pitt’s 22 games and logged only 9.6 minutes per appearance.

Riding the pine is frustrating, especially for a player who knows nothing but action, and Coulibaly is still learning how to channel that frustration. 

“It’s really tough,” he said. “Because when I first started playing, I would always start the game and I would always play more than 30, 40 minutes. So it’s difficult coming here … But anytime you have change you have to do your best and enjoy it.”

In his relatively short spurts of action in games, the aforementioned smooth footwork and ball skills are evident. But after being recruited to Pitt out of high school, Coulibaly has had to make changes in order to carve out a role.

“Coming in he had never played the five like that, he played the four,” junior forward Terrell Brown said. “So he was more facing up and stuff. But he adjusted from not doing that to how we want our fives to be. Screen and roll, rim run, rebound and be okay with going from touching the ball once or twice a possession, to maybe not touching the ball at all.”

As the season has progressed, Coulibaly seems to play at his best when the stakes are high. When Pitt went on the road to face future NBA lottery pick center Vernon Carey Jr. and his No. 9 Duke Blue Devils, Coulibaly tallied eight points, four rebounds and an assist while defending Carey Jr. on the other end in a career-high 22 minutes.

Coulibaly looked surprisingly comfortable in one of the sport’s most ancient and hostile venues against a player bound for professional basketball’s upper echelon. His confidence in the face of daunting circumstances comes from experience. It wasn’t Coulibaly’s first run-in with America’s best.

He began competing on an international stage at 18 years old, representing Mali in the 2018 U18 FIBA African Championship. This past summer, Coulibaly again competed for his home country in the U19 FIBA World Cup. His numbers against some of the world’s best young talent in 2019 were solid — 13.1 points, 6.9 rebounds, 1.7 blocks and 2.4 assists per game.

What was most impressive in that tournament was Mali’s unanticipated run at the gold medal game. They were overpowered by the United States’ treasure trove of blue-chip high school talent, but in the loss, Coulibaly played his best game of the tournament.

Against the loaded American roster, Coulibaly — rated as a three-star prospect by 247 Sports — scored 17 points and blocked three shots against the United States’ lineup of five-star players.

From African all-stars to American blue-chippers to the Duke Blue Devils, Coulibaly said he never wants to show fear. Pitt head coach Jeff Capel noticed that fearlessness when Coulibaly played in the 2019 gold medal game. 

In that game, the United States made a switch to zone defense and Coulibaly occupied a spot in the middle of that zone on offense. That position requires height to reel in passes from the perimeter, skill to attack and distribute as well as the poise to not panic in the face of a suffocating scheme.

After watching Coulibaly pick apart the Americans from that position, Capel knew that Coulibaly had the right temperament and skillset to occupy that spot and vocalized that confidence following this season’s win over Arkansas-Pine Bluff.

“I noticed it with Coulibaly in the gold medal game,” Capel said. “U.S.A. went to a zone and I think he did a heck of a job attacking it in the middle. I made a note right then to myself that if we ever play against zone, he’s the one I want in the middle. Coulibaly has a very good feel for how to play basketball.”

Coulibaly clearly has all the necessary tools, so why does he still receive so few minutes? Youth is one reason, but he is also still working to overcome a significant language barrier. Coming from French-speaking Mali, Coulibaly said he is still learning to communicate with his teammates more efficiently.

He faces a problem that cannot be solved by extra shots or film room study. It’s a different kind of challenge for a player who is used to solving problems with time in the gym. But Coulibaly’s odyssey through one of America’s premier basketball conferences continues with unbound confidence in whatever the next step requires. The competition, whether it’s a dominating opponent or a foreign language, does not phase him.

“I’ve played against a lot of great players,” Coulibaly said. “It’s not nothing, but I’m not scared. You just go out there and compete and do your best. That’s it. That’s my game.” 

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