Oumar Ballo put himself on the radar of NBA teams, colleges and international scouts with a dominant performance earlier this month in the FIBA Under-16 African Championship held in Vacoas-Phoenix, Mauritius, a tiny island nation in the Indian Ocean.
The 6-foot-10, 238-pound 15-year-old posted 25.7 points and 22.8 rebounds per-40 minutes on 68 percent shooting from the field, helping Mali cruise to an 8-0 record and first-place finish that secured the emerging West African basketball powerhouse a spot at the FIBA Under-17 World Championship in 2018 in Argentina.
The level of competition at the event was admittedly fairly weak, with traditional African talent hotspots Nigeria, Senegal, South Sudan, Angola and Cameroon all declining to send representatives to the event for reasons such as internal federation politics, a lack of resources and an inability to gather their most talented prospects already playing in the U.S. or Europe. Still, Ballo's performance -- and especially his potential -- playing up a year on the competition is notable.
With a 6-5 mother and 6-8 father, Ballo grew up playing soccer in Koulikoro. He didn't pick up a basketball until he decided he was too tall to keep kicking a ball. The switch to hoops came at the urging of his mother and brother, Drissa, who is 6-10, 260 pounds and as a 15-year-old moved to France, where he still plays professionally.
Ballo started training with coach Mohamed Diarra in Koulikoro at age 11, leading to an invite to the Canterbury International Basketball Academy (CIBA) in Las Palmas in the Canary Islands of Spain shortly after. CIBA stands out among others for its association with Canterbury, a private British school where most of the classes are conducted in English. The goal is for students (the majority of whom are not athletes) to continue their studies at universities in Europe or the U.S.
"Life was hard at first in Spain," Ballo said. "Leaving my family behind at that age was difficult. I didn't speak any English or Spanish. But I want to be a professional basketball player, so I had to do it. I had to be focused. I practiced three times per day at Canterbury, while being a full-time student. I played three to four games per week, against older players, which helped me a lot."
Ballo has been with CIBA for two seasons, winning MVP of the Under-16 Spanish Championship in May after helping his relatively new team finish in third place alongside traditional powerhouses like Barcelona, Real Madrid, Joventut, Malaga and Estudiantes, with Ballo ranking first in rebounding and second in scoring.
He stands out first and foremost because of his height, massive frame, huge hands and 7-foot-5 wingspan that allows him to dominate the interior against other players his age, despite never having lifted weights seriously. He patterns his game after Shaquille O'Neal and it's easy to see why with his ability to move opponents around with brute force and his willingness to take (and dish out) contact inside the paint.
Ballo is more than just a wrecking ball in the post, though, as he has exceptionally soft and reliable hands, allowing him to catch almost anything thrown his way and also emerge as a force on the backboards. In the 30 games in our database, Ballo has grabbed an outrageous 23.5 rebounds per-40 minutes, nearly 10 of which come on the offensive glass.
Highly mobile, coordinated and fluid, with good balance and a solid feel for the game, Ballo can pass the ball much more effectively than your typically raw 15-year-old. He sees both sides of the floor and showed a soft touch finishing off the glass or throwing in turnaround jumpers. His footwork and shooting mechanics are promising, a testament to the skill work on fundamentals that has been instilled in him over the past two years at CIBA, even if that hasn't quite translated to the free throw line yet, where he made just 52 percent of his attempts at the U16 African Championship.
With that said, Ballo has quite a bit of work to do on his intensity level and polish. He can get away with being bigger and stronger than his opponents, and will look somewhat lackadaisical at times with the way he runs the floor, boxes out or puts a body on opponents defensively, which makes sense considering the circumstances. As players in his age group catch up physically and the competition stiffens, he won't be able to get by operating at half speed. While he's fluid and nimble, he's not a freakish athlete who can compensate with overwhelming quickness and explosiveness. He'll have to play hard all the time.
Cynics will look at Ballo's chiseled frame for a 15-year-old and wonder if he's truly the age his passport lists. FIBA Africa has some experience with fake documentation, unfortunately, and has made it mandatory for all players competing in the U16 Championship to succumb to an "age test." While far from foolproof, these X-rays conducted on players' wrists indicate whether the bone has fused, which would suggest they are no longer growing and thus not likely to be 16 or younger. Mali has a better reputation than many countries in West Africa for the stringency and accuracy of its bureaucratic documents, something that was put to the test when Ballo moved to Spain at age 13.
Ballo confirmed that he conducted the bone test prior to the Championship.
"Everyone did it," he said. "So why not me?
"Every single day people ask me how did I get so big like that? How can I only be 15 years old? The answer is my parents. Look at my brother Drissa. He is a beast."
Ballo's future plans, both according to him and his coach at CIBA, Santi Lopez, point heavily toward the NCAA once he graduates high school in 2020.
"I want to pass from high school to college to the NBA," Ballo said. "I want to be a pro."
"He must go to college," Lopez said. "He must be ready for that. You never know your future, if you have a bad injury, you need academics in your pocket. That's the first goal for him."
Soumaila Samake blazed the NBA trail for basketball players as a 7-footer from Mali and the No. 36 pick in the 2000 draft. It took 16 years until Mali had its second draft selection, when Cheick Diallo was selected by New Orleans with the No. 33 pick.
Can Oumar Ballo follow in their footsteps? Only time will tell. He'll have to keep working, gain experience and make the right decisions for his development.
Next summer's FIBA U17 World Championship could be his coming-out party for college coaches and NBA scouts, especially if joined by good friend and fellow highly touted Malian big man N'Faly Dante, the No. 20 recruit in the 2020 high school class, according to ESPN.
Lopez thinks very highly of Ballo but feels it's too early to speak with him about the NBA.
"Too many people are on him right now," he said. "Everyone is talking to him about being professional and going to the NBA. It doesn't help a 15-year-old boy. I prefer to speak with him about academics, improving, doing his best, in order to have a good future. And then we can see. Now he needs to work.
"He has the potential to do it. He may still be growing. His body is immature. He's still a baby. We have facilities, coaches, good players around, and a great private school. He has everything he needs to get there."