Until last summer, Bilal Coulibaly of the Boulogne-Levallois Metropolitans was France’s best kept secret. It all changed on August 16, 2022. Bronny James came to Nanterre with the California Basketball Club for an exhibition game against Coulibaly’s U18 French Select team. The game was aired live on ESPN2. Coulibaly had 25 points and the W, and the basketball world was buzzing nonstop afterward. Who was that 6-7 swingman with a 7-3 wingspan and God-given athletic abilities?

“After that game, the hype went crazy,” remembers the soft-spoken Coulibaly, smiling. “My parents were like, Now this is serious!

Three weeks later, Brad Stevens was seated courtside at the Palais des Sports Marcel Cerdan, the Mets arena. The president of basketball operations for the Boston Celtics was attending an off-season game between the Mets and Le Portel. People were whispering, Is he there for Victor [Wembanyama]? No. Bilal Coulibaly was the only reason for Stevens’ appearance. But sadly, he was injured.

“I was so upset,” says the native of Courbevoie. “And then I thought others would come, it gave me a boost. I knew that I could be this year’s revelation in the French championship. Whenever I step foot on the court, I’m all in…The NBA is the main objective. Before it was a dream, now it’s a goal.”

After Stevens, a flurry of scouts and NBA executives attended his U21 games, eager to watch him play with the pros.

Patience was key. Vincent Collet, the head coach of the Mets and the French national team, had a plan. Coulibaly would be ready around December.

“It’s his first year as a pro, so we had to go slowly,” explains Collet. “Everything looks easy when you watch him play. He is graceful. Bilal has been blessed with superior athletic abilities. He learns fast, he is smart, he feels the game, you tell him something once and he gets it. Bilal has a ways to go but he is gifted.”

Coulibaly’s relationship with basketball is the typical Euro prospect story. Rejected by soccer (because the team was full), he fell in love with the orange ball at first sight—he was 10 years old at the time, playing for Courbevoie. “My first mentor was Manu De Carvalho. He coached Evan Fournier, he taught me everything I know,” says Coulibaly.

“Bilal is one of the most talented players I have had the chance to coach,” explains De Carvalho. “He is smart, he works, he is humble, he has that drive to become a beautiful player. In my team, he could score 40, 50 points easily. I challenged him all the time. During this quarter, you will only be able to use your left hand. During the next quarter, you will only make plays for your teammates.”

At 13, Coulibaly joined Levallois’ youth system. The transition from Courbevoie to the Mets was a slow process with some ups and downs. Between the age of 15 and 17, he had a huge growth spurt, gaining 8.6 inches—going from 5-6 all the way to 6-3. “I was able to adapt to this new height pretty fast,” recalls Coulibaly. The spurt happened during the COVID lockdown—sports was on hold during the pandemic, so Coulibaly didn’t have to play any competitive basketball, giving him time to adjust to his body’s sudden growth. By 2021, then 17 years old, Coulibaly was now a different player, ready to dominate U21.

Last summer, Coulibaly got his high school degree and his parents gave their blessing—sort of— to pursue hoops fully. You can try that basketball thingy for a year and then we will see. Meanwhile, Collet had always envisioned the defensive impact Coulibaly could have at the pro level.

At first, the humble Coulibaly was too respectful toward the veterans during practice, until something clicked. “I [eventually had to] understand that I had to be physical, it was the only way I could improve and gain their respect,” he says in retrospect. Collet had him slowly test the waters regularly until the Mets coach decided in mid-January that Coulibaly was ready for a full dive. No more U21 games.

A force on defense in the Betclic Elite French championship thanks to his lateral quickness, Coulibaly is now drawing eyeballs. He cuts for an easy dunk, or a powerful tip-in, or to set himself up for a three pointer. He’s been playing major minutes for a Mets team aiming for the title this season.

“He is our X factor,” notes teammate Victor Wembanyama. “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.”

Wembanyama and Coulibaly share the same agents, Bouna Ndiaye and Jérémy Medjana, but they go way back. Together, they won the U13 French championship with Hauts-de-Seine selection in 2017. Their coach? Manu De Calvahro, Bilal’s mentor. It’s a small world, indeed. “We have a chance to win the Betclic Elite after winning the U13,” adds Wembanyama. “That would be unique.”

When you ask Coulibaly about his best game as a pro, he gets really excited to talk about it. “Dijon, [Matt] Mobley was killing us. We did a box and one, Coach put me on him and I was able to contain him, force him into taking bad shots. I was so in tune defensively. People talk about the 14 points I had that night but, defensively, that game was something else. That’s when I realized I could become a great defensive player.”

Coulibaly, who admits to studying Paul George, knows he needs to improve his shooting mechanics. People want him to be more selfish, to break plays. It will come in time.

“Patience,” preaches Collet.

Then again, last September, the 2024 NBA Draft was the goal. Now, Coulibaly is a potential first-round pick for next month’s draft instead.

NBA scouts attending the Mets games are all smiles these days when you bring up Coulibaly’s name.

“I can’t really talk,” says one scout for an Eastern Conference team. “But if we are all here while some of us have no chance to get the other guy [Wembanyama], it means that he is pretty good, right?”

Photos via Getty Images.

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