For 18-year-old Senegalese basketball star Ibou Dianko Badji, his ambition is clear, win NBA Championships and play at the Olympics.
At 7-foot-1 (216cm) and still growing, a height that can stretch to an incredible ‘9-foot-10 standing reach’ it is easy to pick him out on the court.
And that could soon be an North American court.
Badji, nicknamed El long meaning the ‘big one’, will be draft-eligible for the NBA in 2021.
“I just don’t want to play in the NBA, I want to go there and win. I want to win many rings.”- Ibou Dianko Badji to Olympic Channel
The centre is known to be very good in direct blocking, with a reach that could make him a stable “rim protector”.
He's also been able to show some offensive play and fluid athleticism at his current club FC Barcelona B and the Senegalese team, where he featured in the 2019 FIBA U19 World Cup.
Badji’s overpowering size and on-court strength has him compared to retired Congolese American NBA star Dikembe Mutombo, regarded as one of the ‘greatest shot blockers and defensive players of all time’.
The Dakar native, whose first love was football, is learning to combine his defensive versatility with an offensive approach to the game like his idol LeBron James who joined the NBA at 18.
“LeBron is also very tall but he knows how to dribble, how to defend,” he told the Olympic Channel from Barcelona just before heading out to join the national team preparing for the 2020 FIBA U18 African Championships.
“He knows everything. I want to be that kind of basketball player.”
His focus now is firmly trained on helping his team regain the continental title at the event, which is famed for producing some of Africa’s brightest prospects.
Senegal last won the junior championships in 2012, and narrowly lost to Mali (78-76) in the final two years ago. A good showing could help himBadji as he looks to debut for the senior team still seeking to qualify for Tokyo 2020.
Olympic Channel caught up with the rising star, an NBA Academy Africa alumni to chat about his four-year playing stint that has already seen him travel the world, his desire to make the cut for the senior team and play for Senegal senior team.
Olympic Channel (OC): How did you start playing basketball?
Ibou Dianko Badji (IDB): I grew up in a suburb of Dakar. When I started playing basketball in 2016, it was quite complicated as my father is the one who had to push me to train, because I didn’t want to. I wanted to play football like all my other friends.
Then again in my neighbourhood, there were no basketball courts, only football pitches. And at that time, I didn’t want to go far away to train every day. All I was thinking about then was football.
It was very, very tough for me to switch and play basketball. But I was growing tall so fast. My mum implored me to listen to my father and to keep on training and playing basketball. That was the turning point, I immersed myself in basketball and started training very hard.
I made huge strides and, in less than a year, I had become a very strong and good player.
That’s when I got selected for the NBA Academy Africa in Thiès, Senegal where I spent one year. After that, I had a chance to train in Australia for three months before going to the United States also for training and when I got back I signed a contract with Barcelona.
OC: What did you learn in the U.S.?
IDB: I’d say that I was more of a beginner when I left for the U.S. and there I learnt a lot. From one-on-one play, my shooting got better and my positioning on the court as well. I think this is the period that Barcelona noticed me and signed me up.
OC: Are you the only basketballer in the family?
IDB: My older brother is playing basketball in Senegal as well as my younger one. The younger brother Boubaca Badji just joined Unicaja Malaga. I would love to play with him and help him. He looks up to me, he watches every single video of me playing and wants to be like me.
It's very touching and it motivates me to be better.
National team debut
OC: When did you first play for Senegal?
IDB: I made my debut in 2017. We went to Morocco to compete in the FIBA Africa U16 tournament. We learnt a lot. Then I was again called to join the national team for the FIBA U19 World Cup in 2019.
My debut was good as I also had friends in the team Pape Ablaye Sow and Mohamed Mbaye so it was not so hard.
OC: How do you rate your national U18 team?
IDB: We are the future. We have known and played each other for a long time now and we know what we have to do to win. If we stay focused and play as a team, this U18 team can win the 2020 Afrobasket (FIBA U18 African Championships, December 3-9). In the beginning, we were not playing as a team. Everyone wanted to show their skills, one on one and we were not defending.
OC: What is your goal at the 2020 U18 Afrobasket / African Championships?
IDB: We want to win the competition and take back the Cup to Senegal. It has been a long time since we won any trophy (Senegal last won in 2012).
We need to win this trophy to show that we can do it. The coach (Madiene Fall) is always encouraging me and I can tell he has his trust in me which motivates me a lot.
Senegal can be the top team in Africa
OC: In 2018 you lost against hosts Mali in the final (of the FIFA U18 African Championships)…
IDB: We lost by just two points. But it won’t happen like that this year.
OC: Where do you see Senegal basketball going in the next few years?
IBD: I think in two years, we can be the top nation in Africa. Today, it’s difficult in the World Cups (junior and senior level) but in three or four years, we could easily win a world event.
OC: Do you think you can make the cut for the Senegalese team for next year’s Olympic Qualifiers?
IBD: Of course. I give it my all every day and I believe in myself. I should be there. It would be such a great pleasure to be a part of the Senegalese team if we qualify to go to the Games.
"The Olympics is a dream. A lot of Senegalese youngsters dream of competing at the Games" - Ibou Dianko Badji on his Tokyo 2020 Dream
OC: Which game in your career has had most of an impact on you?
IDB: During the U19 World Cup (in 2019), we were in the same group as the USA, and this game meant a lot to me.
It was the first time we played against them. They put pressure on us from the first quarter and our captain, Jean-Jacques Boissy, helped me a lot.
We lost (58-87) but I wanted us to win it so badly. My fans back in the hood believed we could win that game. We did too.
In the beginning, we defended well and we scored easy points but at the end of the third quarter, we fell off the pace and the USA took advantage of that. That loss hurt me deeply.
But I know that one day we will manage to beat the USA.
We will do it!
The dream...NBA and the Championship rings
OC: How is it playing for a top basketball team like Barca?
IBD: It’s a great pleasure. A dream. This is a big club and there is a lot of pride to play here, as a Senegalese. But I am aiming further and I know I can do better and reach the NBA. But I don’t just want to play in the NBA, I want to win. I want to be like LeBron.
"Many African players go to the NBA for the money and to have a good life, live large. But I think I can do something special. I am capable of realising my dream" - Ibou Dianko Badji
OC: You want to win an NBA ring?
IBD: No, I want to win many (NBA Championship) rings.
It would bring great pride to Senegal. Not only for Senegal, the whole of Africa too.
OC: What do you think you will need to get to the NBA soon?
IBD: I need to work hard, to believe in myself and listen to the advice of those who are guiding me. People have been telling me not to think about money at my age. The money will come.
I have been advised to keenly follow the coaches instructions, to respect them, as well as everyone around the court.
On the court, I still need to improve my one-on-one level and perfect my defence.
OC: What do you think makes you stand out currently as a player?
IBD: My blocks!
I like to have fun as well. I don’t stress too much and I’m easy going. On and off the court.
OC: How do your friends describe you?
IBD: They think I'm a comedian because I make them laugh all the time. I don’t like when a friend stays alone, is sad, and doesn’t want to talk. So I am always trying to cheer them up.
They call me ‘El long’ which means the long or big one, as growing up I was bigger than everyone around me.
Play like LeBron
OC: Who do you admire in the game?
IBD: In the beginning, I was not watching basketball so I didn’t know a lot. But when I arrived in Thiès for NBA Academy, I met Cheikh Tidiane Faye, who now plays in the U.S., and he pushed me to train hard every day.
Today, my idol is LeBron James. LeBron is very tall but knows how to dribble, how to defend. He knows everything. I want to be that kind of basketball player. I watch all his videos because I want to be like him.
OC: How does it feel to be compared to the great Dikembe Mutombo?
IBD: It’s a great pleasure, but I don’t want to be an exclusive defender. I want to go higher. I want to be an all-around basketball player.
For me, defending is easy. But I want to score, I want to make passes and contribute to the game, not only blocking.
OC: Do you have other passions outside basketball?
IBD: Yes, I love music. I listen to a lot of rap music. I especially like Pop Smoke’s music. I also listen to some Senegalese music, Mbalax. I like Wally Seck’s music.