A conversation with Bilal Coulibaly: ‘I can’t wait to become … the real Bilal’

WASHINGTON — In the coming years, Bilal Coulibaly will have plenty of opportunities to prove the Washington Wizards made the smart choice when they traded up in the 2023 NBA Draft’s first round to select him.

Saturday morning was not one of those options. He didn’t touch a ball. He didn’t fire a long-range shot. He didn’t guard an All-Star.

What Coulibaly did instead was in many ways even more impressive than what he could do on a basketball court. Team officials held a press conference to introduce him to local media members and, by extension, Wizards fans. The lanky teenager exuded poise as television cameras and cell phones recorded his every move and microphones listened to what he said.

None of that might seem all that special. Holding introductory question-and-answer sessions is standard procedure after NBA teams draft someone in the first round.

But Coulibaly’s circumstance deviated from the norm. He is only 18 years old and English is not his native language. To him, the United States is a foreign country. As recently as several months ago, he did not even expect to enter this year’s draft. He figured he would spend a full year seasoning in France’s top professional basketball league before making the jump to the world’s best basketball league.

When someone asked what motivates him, Coulibaly replied: “All I think about is my family.” Then, glancing quickly to his left, into the front row—where his mother, father, and two sisters sat—he added, “I want to make sure they’re a part of me. Yes, I want to make them proud. You know, we’ve been through a lot, and to be here today is such a blessing.”

Coulibaly seemed comfortable, as if he belongs in the spotlight.

If that doesn’t sound all that impressive in itself, consider how it would have felt to you if the roles were reversed.

Let’s say you were a raw 18-year-old North American soccer player with only a little experience in Major League Soccer. And let’s say you went to France abroad and joined a team in France’s top soccer league, Ligue 1. As a native English speaker, how would you have felt during your introductory press conference in French?

If you would have felt completely safe – or at least looked totally confident – then you would have looked like Coulibaly at his introductory Wizards news conference.

He has high ambitions. When asked to name the NBA or WNBA players he models his game after, he mentioned that he has recently studied a pair of the league’s best two-way players, Mikal Bridges of the Brooklyn Nets and Paul George of the LA Clippers.

He doesn’t have to reach Bridges and George’s levels yet. The Wizards, who are just starting to rebuild, have time to nurse him patiently.

Wizards general manager Will Dawkins said Coulibaly is someone who is “talent-wise just scratching the surface.”

Dawkins added, “He has a rare blend of youth, elite athleticism, speed with a skill set to continue to handle the ball, pass and defend at a high level. He’s a two-way player that we have a lot of confidence in and that we was able to target for these reasons.”

Selecting Coulibaly represents a significant departure for the Wizards. In recent years, the team tended to make relatively safe first-round picks, selecting players believed to have relatively high floors but, in most cases, relatively low ceilings: Rui Hachimura, Deni Avdija, Corey Kispert and Johnny Davis.

Coulibaly, on the other hand, is a crucial high-risk, high-reward draft pick. While he possesses excellent positional size for a wing, at 6-foot-7, and has strong athletic skills, he is also relatively untested.

The Wizards’ approach is different because, after April’s firing of team president and general manager Tommy Sheppard, the executives leading the front office are different. Monumental President of Basketball Michael Winger, Dawkins and Senior Vice President of Player Personnel Travis Schlenk were hired over the past month.

Wizards executives are taking the calculated risk that Coulibaly will fulfill his undeniable potential.

On Saturday, Coulibaly began to demonstrate why Winger, Dawkins and Schlenk have faith in him as a person.

Athletics spoke briefly with Coulibaly after his press conference and asked him broad questions designed to give NBA fans a chance to get to know him a little. The conversation that follows was edited lightly for clarity and grammar.

How did your English become so good?

Thanks, first. You know, at a younger age, we have some classes in English and everything, and I’ve watched a lot of videos on YouTube, the Netflix service, and movies, and it helped me a lot.

Why did you start playing basketball?

Because my father loved it. Yes, I had to play football. … I started playing basketball and I loved it.

Were you a good soccer player?

Yes I was! I was the best in my school. I couldn’t wait to play football, but now it’s basketball and that’s it.

How did you choose to wear No. 0 on your Wizards jersey?

Last year I was supposed to wear No. 3. But (my former Metropolitans ’92 teammate) DeVante’ Jones has it and I had to pick someone else. I had no idea (what to do), so I said, “Zero idea (so) the number zero.” And I had a great year, so I’ll keep it going.

Which sights, which monuments, which museums do you want to see in this city?

The White House. I can’t wait to see it. I’ve only seen it on TV, you know, with Barack Obama. But I have to see it in real life.

What are your initial thoughts on what you’ve seen so far here?

I love the city. There are many European citizens in the city. I heard some Spanish, French, everything. I love it.

How is it to share this with your family?

Oh, it’s just such a blessing. I saw them cry at the wooden night. I’m just so proud.

Did you cry at night?

I did not. Almost! (He grinned.)

What are your expectations for yourself as a player in the NBA?

I want to be a good two-way player. But yes, I want to be a franchise player within the next four years. I want to stay in DC, give it my all for the fans, for the city.

How do you want to grow as a person? You are only 18.

Yes, I’m only 18. I have a long way to go. Gain some weight physically. I have to grow. I know. I can’t wait to be Bilal, the real Bilal, the male one.

What are some of your interests off the field? Have you had time to have any hobbies?

I love playing video games with my friends. I also love shopping and seeing my family.

How has speaking with Ian Mahinmi and Kevin Séraphin been helpful in preparing for this process?

Even before (I was appointed) I spoke to them. I also practiced with Kevin Séraphin. As soon as I was appointed they called me and just wished me luck. They said they would come to DC to support me.

Can you describe your family’s journey leading up to this moment?

It’s been a long time. I grew up in small towns. We (were not) rich. They did it all by themselves. It was difficult. I’m just proud to be here to help them now.

What kind of example did they set for you?

Just to be humble. Be humble. Today you can be on top. But tomorrow you can be low. So just be humble.

How many siblings do you have?

I have two sisters. … I am the middle one between two girls.

How are you looking forward to the summer league?

I can’t wait for that.

(Photo of Bilal Coulibaly and Will Dawkins: Stephen Gosling / Courtesy of the Washington Wizards)

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