Even when he’s not an active participant, Sagaba Konate is hard to miss. At 6-foot-8 and 260 pounds, he cuts an imposing figure. As a Toronto Raptors practice at Las Vegas Summer League opens to media late on a sweaty July afternoon, it’s Konate shooting free throws on an adjacent net that draws the most attention, not the dozen players — some of them semi-established NBA names — still participating in the actual practice.
Unlike the others, Konate was able to make no impression in Vegas beyond these occasional, momentary visuals. Signed by the Raptors almost immediately after going undrafted in June, Konate has been subject to an interesting first pro offseason devoid of actual 5-on-5 play as the Raptors’ medical staff looks to rebuild the health of his troublesome right knee.
It’s that same right knee that may have contributed to Konate being available to the Raptors in the first place. Now 22, Konate entered the draft a year prior to test the waters and ultimately withdrew, returning to West Virginia for his junior season, where he figured to play a prominent role. In December, he began sitting out due to pain and discomfort in the right knee, where he’d had offseason surgery to repair a meniscus tear. His management of the injury became a controversial topic, as multiple MRIs revealed no structural damage and head coach Bob Huggins made a few not-so-veiled remarks. West Virginia fans were inconsistent in their kindness, to say the least, and local news outlets were critical.
Part of Huggins’ apparent gripe was that one of Konate’s brothers was making determinations for him. Konate has 12 siblings, and six of the brothers moved from Mali to the United States to seek greater athletic opportunities and educations, including Sagaba prior to his junior year of high school. The context of Huggins’ comments pointed to older brother Bakary, who had just graduated from Minnesota and who played in Spain’s second division last year, while eldest brother Ibrahim, a mathematics teacher in Akron, Ohio, also advised. The brothers, though, say Sagaba’s decisions were his own, based on his comfort level and, eventually, his personal goals and dreams.
In any case, Konate was initially ruled out for two-to-four weeks and issued crutches to keep weight off. Eventually, he’d be ruled out for the season, having never returned and finishing with just eight games played on the season, enough to break West Virginia’s career shot-blocking record but few enough to put his draft stock into serious question.
“Yeah, we kinda worked on it to get me back before the season ended, but I was working the process, trying to figure everything out, and obviously I didn’t play, which was different for me and really hard for me not to play. Just sitting out watching my teammates play, it was hard,” Konate said. “(Then) I was still working out with the teams but I wasn’t really 100 percent yet. So it was really challenging for me. At the same time, I just test myself, and just play through. I was playing through the injury like the whole year, so it was a good experience to learn from. I’m always confident in myself, whatever I do, it’s just no looking back, no regret. Just learn from it. I’ve just been learning from every, not mistake, but everything I do, I just learn from it and keep moving, do better.”
When Konate, who did not receive an invite to the NBA Draft Combine despite attending in 2018, stayed in the draft and participated in full game action in the G League Elite Camp, it looked like maybe those issues were behind him.
The Raptors, though, want to be sure any knee issues are in the past. They immediately shut him down from 5-on-5 play, held him out of Summer League action and, as of the team’s latest voluntary sessions in Los Angeles, he was still focusing on individual work and a strength and rehabilitation program. (The team’s younger players also recently had their annual stint with Alex McKechnie in Burnaby, B.C., and rookies attended the NBA Rookie Transition Program in New Jersey last week.) Coming off of a season in which load management was a popular phrase, the Raptors believe they have a competitive advantage with a medical staff that can help a player in a situation like Konate’s. In fact, that’s part of why Konate was drawn to Toronto when post-draft camp offers came in.
“We feel really strong about our medical staff and what the proper sort of approach you can take to a rehabilitation project,” assistant general manager Dan Tolzman said. “We’re curious to see what he can become. It’s all about getting him ready for the start of the training camp and see what he does from there.”
There is no rush from Toronto’s perspective. Whatever the specifics of his 2018-19, they want to make sure the issue is behind him for good. They feel they were able to sign someone draft-worthy — in addition to landing Dewan Hernandez at No. 59 and Terence Davis as an undrafted signing — they can get into their development pipeline and make the most out of. Konate was actually ranked, on average, slightly higher than Hernandez on publicly available draft boards, and there’s plenty of theoretical upside considering he only began playing basketball after transitioning from soccer when he was 15 and improved rapidly year over year. (I wrote a bit more about Konate’s profile here.)
If nothing else, Konate will block shots, likely as a shorter centre, given his physical profile. Over three college seasons, Konate turned away 15.3 percent of opponent 2-point field goals while on the floor, the highest mark among any player to play more than 750 minutes in that span (and fourth if the cut-off is dropped to 500). That’s higher than names like Anthony Davis, Nerlens Noel and Jaren Jackson Jr. in recent years, with Hassan Whiteside standing as the only college player with a notably higher block percentage (18.8 percent) in the last decade.
“I mean, he’s a specialist. He’s undersized but he’s strong and he’s athletic to make up for that,” Tolzman said. “He’s got a knack for shot-blocking, and any time you can find a specialist at some skill, they usually find ways to impact the NBA game, and he undoubtedly is one of the best shot-blockers in the last handful of years in college basketball.”
That alone is a skill worth developing. Konate has a 7-foot wingspan and 8-foot-10 standing reach, rebounds and runs the floor well, has a nascent post game including a nifty jump-hook and even began trying his hand at 3-point shooting last season (9-for-23). It’s likely that Konate will be given ample time with Raptors 905 to continue to develop his game, and he and Hernandez project as a fun frontcourt pairing that can play the four and five fluidly depending on the situation. Head coach Jama Mahlalela can build a defence around the dual deterrents he’ll have inside, and depending on how the roster shakes out, commit plenty of possessions to expanding the young duo’s offensive profiles.
Once Konate is healthy and ready to go, that is. While there’s a genuine case to be made that Konate is a step behind in the battle for roster spots — specifically, the Raptors’ two open two-way roster spots, which he’ll be competing for with Oshae Brissett, Devin Robinson and whoever the Raptors add to their final camp slot — he’d be further behind if he was playing in live games and suffered a setback. The Raptors have told Konate since the jump that his focus should be on the start of training camp (Sep. 29), and their early commitment and patience suggest he’ll have the inside track on one of those two-way spots. In the interim, he’s been afforded time to work on skill development and, more importantly, make sure he’ll be healthy from here.
“It feels great now,” Konate said of the knee. “We talk about that, day-by-day, trying to improve, trying to get better and keep focusing and get ready for training camp. I’m just focused on what they give me to do. It’s been really good so far.”