WNBA draft 2022: Why Mali's Sika Kone is skyrocketing up draft boards

SIKA KONE GOT off the bus and approached the gate to an outdoor basketball facility in Bamako, Mali. She was late -- days late -- but she told herself she needed to at least try. This was her big shot.

It was 2016, and the 14-year-old Kone had just heard from one of her friends that a basketball camp was being held in town. The best players at the four-day camp would be given full scholarships to Canterbury School, a British academy in Spain. The only problem: Kone had missed the first two days.

Uncertain if she'd even be allowed to participate, or if she could make up for the lost time, Kone agonized over whether she should go. Her mom pressed the money she'd need for her bus fare into her hands and asked her to try.

When Kone arrived at the gate, she had already achieved a lot in basketball in very little time. She had been introduced to the game four years earlier, and her love took root right away. She knew if she got a chance to show her newfound skills the coaches wouldn't be disappointed. And she knew what was at stake: a chance to immerse herself in the sport she loved, a chance to train with better coaches in better facilities, a chance to make her mom proud.

She approached the coaches and decided to be honest. She had only heard about the camp that morning, she told them. Give me one chance to show you my skills, she said. The coaches waved her in.

She quickly showed them their decision was a wise one. She hit 3-pointers, she grabbed rebounds, she dominated on defense.

"I was not nervous," she said. "When I am on the court, I am just playing."

It was after the camp, while the coaches deliberated, that nerves did set in. Had she done enough? In half the time?

Then came the announcement: Sika Kone, full scholarship to Spain.

She could hear her heart beat in her chest. She had made it.

On Monday, nearly six years after that life-changing camp, Kone will be waiting to hear her name called yet again, this time during the 2022 WNBA draft (7 p.m. ET, ESPN). The 19-year-old, 6-foot-3 forward/center is projected by multiple outlets to be taken in the first round. If the projections are correct, Kone would become the fifth Malian woman to be drafted by a WNBA team. Her life is filled with such improbable stories. Leaving poverty-stricken Mali at age 15 on a full scholarship to play basketball in Spain, visiting her family once a year (if that), learning English from watching nighttime TV in Spain, losing her mom just a few weeks before the draft to an undisclosed illness.

Although Kone didn't just lead her team to an NCAA championship like South Carolina's Destanni Henderson did, or turn heads in the Final Four like Louisville's Emily Engstler did, or appear on NCAA player of the year lists like Baylor's NaLyssa Smith or Kentucky's Rhyne Howard did, she just might have the highest ceiling of them all.

KONE WAS 10 years old when a friend extended an invitation: "Come with me! I have something to show you." She took Kone to a small indoor basketball court in town and made her stand on the sidelines as she bounced the ball, tucked it between her legs and jumped up to throw it in a basket. Then Kone watched as her friend began playing a game with her friends.

Kone's eyes widened. She had no idea what this sport was, but she was intrigued. It was geometry, it was precision and -- her favorite part of it all -- it was a team sport.

She hurried home and told her parents where she had been. She began by explaining what basketball was -- or the little she knew from peppering her friend with questions -- and asked her parents if she could try the sport.

The entry fee to play on that basketball court was the equivalent of around $10 per month. Kone's mom nodded her head. "If this is what you want to do, I support you," she said.

Kone went back to the court the next day, and then the next, mesmerized by the rules and speed of the game. Slowly, her muscles strengthened, she was getting taller and she started picking up the nuances of the game.

Two years later, when Kone turned 12, she tried out for a feeder club to the Malian national team. And made it. Club officials called her talent raw and authentic and wanted to hone her skills.

She ran home from tryouts to tell her mom everything that happened. The news made her burst with energy for the rest of the day and her mother, seeing her daughter's happiness, decided she would do everything in her capacity to make her dreams come true.

Kone and her family -- she has three sisters and two brothers -- watched the Malian women's national team play on TV in the evenings. She began dreaming of sporting the Malian green jersey. She imagined her family sitting around the TV watching her play for their country.

"That made me work hard," Kone said and smiled.

When she was 13, Kone was picked as one of five players from her club to attend a national team training camp. At the end of the camp, she was the only player selected from her club. The coaches told her that she was too young but that she should keep training, and once she got older, closer to 16, she would be called up to play for the national team.

Bamako, where Kone was born and raised, is the capital of Mali and has a population of 2 million. Kone's native language is Bambara, but she also speaks French, an official language of the country since it gained independence from France in 1960. Amid political instability for decades, Mali, a landlocked country in West Africa, is one of the poorest nations in the world. One of Mali's bright spots over the past two decades has been its women's basketball program, which won gold at the FIBA Women's AfroBasket in 2007 and qualified for the 2008 Olympics. In 2010 at the FIBA world championships, Mali finished 15th. But recent allegations of systemic sexual abuse within the program, which led to the arrest of one coach and the suspension of another coach and one official, have cast that success in a grim light.

"It came as a shock to me," Kone said of the allegations, which date back to the 1990s. "I did not have much interaction with the coaching staff during the tournaments so I am not in a good position to comment."

By the time she was 15, Kone's view had expanded beyond her country's national team. That's when she boarded a plane -- her first one -- and left the only country she'd ever known, the only life she'd ever known, to pursue a bigger, more ambitious basketball dream.

AS SOON AS the coaches at the 2016 camp in Bamako announced her name as a scholarship winner, Kone's mind began racing.

She had been so focused on playing good basketball during her abbreviated time at camp that she hadn't thought about what would happen if she made it. What would her mom think? Would her parents even consider letting her go? Questions cluttered her mind on her way back home.

Until then, Kone had been playing for her local team. Until then, Kone's dream was to play for the Malian women's national team. Until then, Kone didn't even know there was anything bigger to dream for. But, what if there was something bigger, something that would make her mother even more proud of her, waiting for her outside of Mali?

Caught off guard, her parents asked a lot of questions. What would the academy be like? Did it focus on education? How often could she visit?

Kone sought the help of the camp's organizer, who was well-known in her community, to alleviate her parents' concerns. She would live in the dorms along with the other students, she would have a packed day of studying followed by training. Plus, there were three Malian basketball players who had left to attend the same school a year earlier, and they could help her navigate her new life in Gran Canaria.

Her parents also showed another overwhelming emotion: happiness. Their youngest daughter would get to study in a British school in Spain and play basketball -- all for free. That was a big deal to her parents, who had six kids to worry about.

For Kone, the decision was simple. She wanted to play basketball. And more importantly, she wanted to make her parents proud.

"I always asked myself, 'Will this make my mom proud?'" she said. "And if the answer is yes, I said yes to it."

A few months later, she packed a suitcase and, with her entire family, headed to the airport.

With tears pouring out of her eyes, at 15, she said goodbye to her family as they huddled around the entrance, waving. She walked into the airport, stumbled her way through security, and boarded the airplane for her first-ever flight.

And as the plane took off, she could feel the pressure in her ears as she gripped the sides of her seats.

When the pilot announced that they would land in Spain soon, she looked out the window. Spain came into her bird's-eye view, and her signature smile appeared on her face.

ON THE COURT for the fifth hour straight, Kone tried to perfect her every move, her every shot. She had watched hours of tape of WNBA legend Candace Parker and spent hours replicating Parker's moves on the court.

Her agent, former pro basketball player Ahmadou Keita, stood on the sidelines watching her. It was the summer of 2021 and Kone spent her offseason in France with her agent, immersed in her training.

This woman never stops, Keita thought to himself.

After hour six on the court, she wiped away sweat and walked over to the gym to lift weights.

"Sika, your body needs rest," Keita said. "This is enough for today."

"Just a bit longer," Kone said and smiled.

And went on to lift weights for an hour.

Ever since Kone moved to Spain, in 2016, she vowed to put in that extra hour. She was the first to arrive at the training complex -- before the janitors even opened the facilities -- and she was the last to leave the court. One more shot on the court, one more rep in the weight room, one more mile on the treadmill. That extra effort was for her parents, particularly her mother. She needed to make them proud. And this is what it took.

"We had to tell her, 'Look, we are going to close the training complex, you have to go home,'" Jose Carlos Ramos, the head coach of SPAR Gran Canaria, Kone's team for the past three years, said in Spanish. "Sometimes she was at the door of the training complex at 9 in the morning, but we started training at 11. The story was that she used to come to open the door of the building."

As soon as Kone enrolled at the Canterbury School, an English-Spanish bilingual school in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Spain, she began learning English earnestly. At night after training, she turned on the television and watched everything from shows to news to sports, repeating sentences, writing down new words and mimicking the accents. She also picked up colloquial Spanish so she could get to know her teammates.

She began following the WNBA, paying attention to the English commentary in addition to the athletes. She was only 15, but a new dream began to take shape.

She wanted to play in the WNBA. It was the ultimate league for women's basketball. And what better way to make her mother proud than to say, "Mom, I am playing in the best basketball league in the world?" she thought.

After two years at the Canterbury School, she was recruited by CB Adareva Tenerife, a team in the Spanish junior league in the island of Tenerife. Even then, her potential was a topic of conversation among coaches in the Spanish basketball league.

When Ramos heard about Kone and went to meet her on the island, his first thought was that "a great future awaits for this young girl." And he decided to recruit her to play for his team, SPAR Gran Canaria, a prestigious member of the Spanish women's basketball league.

Ramos had some experience in getting athletes to the WNBA -- he coached the reigning WNBA champion Chicago Sky's Astou Ndour-Fall when she played in Spain -- and he knew what it took to make it in the U.S. And he knew, right away, that Kone was going to be a star in the WNBA one day.

"She is the beating heart [of the team] on the court," Ramos said. "She gets a rebound on defense, passes the ball, runs the court, scores. If she fails she passes the ball to a teammate, if the teammate fails she will get that same rebound. What I mean is that in the same sequence she can do five, six or even eight different plays such as blocking, rebounding, assisting, scoring baskets or coming back on defense."

During the off-seasons starting in 2017, she traveled to Mali and played for the national team, and her parents and siblings watched from the stands. In 2021, at the U19 World Cup in Hungary, where Mali finished fourth, Kone joined Americans Caitlin Clark and Sonia Citron on the all-tournament team after leading all players in scoring (19.7 PPG) and rebounding (14.8). At the 2021 FIBA AfroBasket, an annual continental basketball championship in Africa, Kone helped Mali finish as runner-up, reaching the final before losing to Nigeria. After every win, Kone's mom would call her and say "I am so proud of you." And, every time she heard the sentence, a big smile would appear on her face. That sentence could never get old.

"Playing for Mali was her first dream, so what a dream come true to play for her country," Ramos said.

At SPAR Gran Canaria, she blossomed, and out of the 19 games she played in the 2021-22 season, she averaged 33.6 minutes, recording 14 double-doubles. Sometimes, Ramos could tell that she needed a 30-second break but she'd push herself. "No, no, no, I want to continue playing, I want to win," she'd insist.

All of those points, all of those rebounds, and all of that winning has landed Kone in the first round on a variety of mock drafts. "It feels so good to see my name in those lists, like I can't believe it sometimes," Kone said.

When she's not playing basketball, she's helping new recruits from Mali settle in at SPAR Gran Canaria, teaching them the little things she learned when she moved to Spain. By being who she is, she teaches them what commitment looks like, what sacrifice looks like, and what effort looks like, Ramos said.

Kone, who speaks Spanish, French, Bambara and English, made it a priority to bond with each of her teammates. "If I am alone or sad, she comes and talks to me," teammate Adji Fall said in Spanish. "If I have a bad game, she reaches out to talk with me. Off the court, we phone each other. For me, she is like a sister."

Usually a quiet observer, Kone also showed her silly side to her teammates. Fall recollected convincing Kone to do something she didn't like doing in front of people -- dance. And Fall got the entire routine on video. Now, when new teammates question her story of Kone dancing, Fall says, "I have it on video."

In February 2022, Kone injured her right meniscus during a game in Spain. Initially the diagnosis was grim -- doctors predicted she would be sidelined for more than four months. But on March 14, Kone underwent an arthroscopy, a simpler operation than what was previously anticipated. She was expected to make a comeback in four weeks.

Kone saw the injury and layoff as a means to get stronger.

"The injury can only make me better," she said.

SIKA KONE IS wearing a red and black kaftan-esque outfit -- traditional Malian garb -- sprinkled with golden dots. Her hair is pulled back tight with a black bandana. She is in her parents' house in Bamako, and her room is separated from the rest of the house with a door-length curtain detailed with cream and green African print. Kone flew to Bamako to spend time with her family.

Her smile is a thing of beauty -- it's bright, it lights up her entire face and makes crinkles form around her eyes. Even though she is peering through a Zoom screen, more than 4,300 miles away from the East Coast, I find myself smiling, proving a point her acquaintances had made over and over.

Her smile will make you smile.

When I tell her that ESPN has her going in the first round of the draft, she looks away from the screen and for the first time her smile fades.

"It was my mom's dream for me to play in the WNBA. ... And finally, the draft is here but she is not," she says and trails off.

In 2021, she had sat her mom down and told her all about how the WNBA draft worked, how players were selected and what it would mean for her future -- and the future of her family. Her mom's eyes lit up. "You have to do this," her mom said. "This is the dream you have to chase."

Ever since Kone began playing basketball on that tiny court in Bamako, she's made every decision with one goal: to make her mom proud. But when Kone's name is called on Monday, her mom will not be there to hear it, to hug her daughter, to cry tears of joy, to tell her daughter how proud she is.

Kone's mother died three weeks ago.

Kone has been on the go for so long, pushing herself to get that extra hour of practice, to do an extra rep in the weight room, to never stop. Now that she is on the brink of achieving her dream, and finally has the time to stop and think -- to walk around her mother's house, touching the sofa she sat on, the kitchen countertop she cooked on and the bed she slept in -- she is struggling to make sense of it all, and to find meaning in death.

Sometimes she texts her friend Fall in Spain. Fall tries to distract her. But, the sadness is evident in her WhatsApp messages.

"She wanted to take her mother to Mecca. She wanted to take her mother to see her play [in the WNBA after] she was drafted," Fall said.

Kone shakes herself out of it, smiling back at the camera. A look of determination crosses her face.

On Monday night, Kone, back in Spain, will settle in front of her TV and watch. And wait for her name to be called. Her mom won't be there physically, but Kone can still feel her presence. Her mom allowed her to be who she is today.

"I hope she is watching from heaven," Kone says. "I hope she is proud of me."

ESPN research chief Gueorgui Milkov contributed reporting for this story.