While NBA scouts and executives prioritized getting over to France to see Victor Wembanyama this season, there was another young player catching their eye and generating buzz in this year's NBA Draft. Bilal Coulibaly, a 6-foot-6 guard with a 7-3 wingspan, passes every eye test as a NBA prospect. He has length and athleticism and doesn't need the ball in his hands to impact the game.
Coulibaly is one of the youngest players in this draft class at 18 years old and his stats this season for Boulogne-Levallois Metropolitans 92 don't exactly jump off the page. While his teammate, Wembanyama, is leading the entire French Betclic Élite League in points (21.6), rebounds (10.4) and blocks (3.1), Coulibaly is averaging only 5 points and 3 rebounds in 18 minutes this season. This was his first year playing professional basketball in France. He's shown immense improvement since the start of the season and is playing with more confidence for the Mets 92 in the LNB Pro A playoffs right now.
"My confidence grew as opportunities came," Coulibaly told ESPN last month. "I work on everything to be as complete a player as I can. The key has been just being confident and implementing in games what I learn in practice."
The NBA values young players with a high ceiling when drafting players in the first round and Coulibaly has both. Each year, it's the one-and-done prospects who are projected toward the top of the draft over the four-year experienced college players.
"There’s a correlation between youth and upside, historically speaking," one NBA scout told Yahoo Sports in March. "You expect inconsistencies at 19 or 20, but the combination of youth and production is the best-case scenario. Youth, in general, suggests upside."
Coulibaly is still growing into his game on the court and also his long frame. Over the course of two years, Coulibaly went from 5-6 to 6-3 and then added another three inches the next year. He uses his height to his advantage, particularly in catch-and-shoot situations where he has a high release on his jump shot, connecting on almost 40% of his attempts from 3-point range this season. He has a strong base and needs to work on his load time once he catches the ball, but the shooting mechanics are there. Defensively is where he shines with his long wingspan and fast feet, impacting different aspects of the game. Coulibaly has shown flashes of what he could be as an NBA wing whether it's his impressive dunks in transition, the way he pins blocks off the backboard or finding Wembanyama in the lane when he drives baseline.
"He is our X factor," Wembanyama told SLAM Magazine. "An all-terrain weapon, he can posterize a player and on the very next play block him. Players keep on underestimating him because he is young … They go for a layup thinking they are safe and they get annihilated. Every game he does something crazy. I think he is the player I'm looking for the most on the court."
He's the definition of a late bloomer who was relatively unknown a year ago. Wembanyama, the assumed No. 1 pick, is a generational-type talent with his skill set on the court, but he also makes everyone around him better. Scouts who tuned into any of Wembanyama's games this season discovered a potential budding star in the making with Coulbaly.
Before the season started, the 2024 NBA Draft was Coulibaly's goal. Now, he's a projected first-round pick in the upcoming draft on June 22. A team that is willing to be patient and develop Coulibaly for a couple of years could get a steal once he grows into his potential and becomes the next young and talented European player to hit the NBA.