Bourama Sidibe’s commitment to Syracuse’s 2017 recruiting class on Monday afternoon came with none of the usual fanfare. It was just a staged signing ceremony with Sidibe sitting at a table, flanked by two of his coaches in an empty gym at his high school – St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark, New Jersey. No circus atmosphere. No drama. No hat unveiling. Not even a Syracuse hat on Sidibe’s head. Low key. Businesslike. Exactly how the soft spoken big man from Bamako, Mali in West Africa wanted it.  

Please don’t get the wrong impression. The low-profile nature of the announcement doesn’t make the signing insignificant. (And yes, Sidibe has sent a signed National Letter of Intent to Syracuse.) It’s crystal clear that Sidibe, his head coach Mark Taylor, and the Orange staff are thrilled he’s heading to SU next year. And the 6-foot-10 big man and his coach are very confident he will make a huge impact right away. 

For Sidibe, a very well-spoken and mellow 19-year-old, following in Tyler Ennis’s footsteps from the St. Benedict’s Gray Bees to the Syracuse Orange and playing in a 2-3 zone will feel very familiar.

“I feel [Syracuse] is a good fit for me because we do a lot of similar things at school here,” said Sidibe. “Players [like Ennis] went to Syracuse so they know what’s good there and I can take advantage of the opportunity too. The [2-3] zone that we play, they do the same type. The way [Syracuse] pressures out of the zone, we do that too and even some of our offense may be the same. I’m excited.”

Sidibe plays both the middle and the wing of the Gray Bees zone and could play either role for the Orange. He didn’t seem to have a preference.

(By the way, when I first started to interview Bourama, I said his first name and he repeated it. I thought I was saying his name wrong, but I was told I did, in fact, pronounce it correctly. He just says his name when he meets people. It’s his way of being polite.  His name is pronounced: Boo-rahm-ah Sid-uh-bay.)

Gerry McNamara was Sidibe’s primary recruiter, according to Taylor, with Red Autry also doing some of the legwork. Then Mike Hopkins paid a visit and, “fell in love with him right away.” Coach Jim Boeheim helped seal the deal when Sidibe made an official visit to Syracuse the weekend of November 11.   

Sidibe’s recruiting ratings vary from 3 to 4-stars, but after a breakout summer with his AAU team, WeR1, Bourama turned a lot of heads. Still, some think he’s underrated and overlooked. 

Taylor, whose former players include Duke all-time great Jay Williams, former NBA center Andrew Bynum at St. Joseph’s in Metuchen, New Jersey (Tyus Battle’s alma mater) and, of course, Ennis at St. Benedict’s, has a tremendous track record of mentoring and molding talent. He thinks Syracuse has a steal. Taylor outlined in great detail why Sidibe picked Syracuse and how his skillset should translate well in an Orange uniform.

“Number one was the [Syracuse] roster, who they have and who might be going to the NBA next year,” said Taylor, donning a dapper Navy blue Syracuse hat. “Two: they only [play] nine scholarship players so he’ll probably be an immediate impact player next year. Three: he fits their style of play like a glove. Bourama is 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, with phenomenal timing on defense. He can run the floor, get to the rim and finish with both hands and can shoot a fifteen foot jump shot. He fits into what Syracuse’s offense and defense thrive on.”

Taylor went on, “The last reason, which played a really big part: his whole network really is at St. Benedict’s. He’s from Africa and he doesn’t have anybody [from his family] over here and he’s become really close with [our staff at St. Benedict’s]. We are only a car ride away [from Syracuse]. He could’ve gone to a lot of places. He’s comfortable there in that if he needs something, we are here.” 

For Bourama, St. Benedict’s is his home. Literally. His host “family” is St. Benedict’s. He lives there year-round in the dormitories, a unique setup for a 19-year-old whose biological family is on the other side of the world. He only went home to Mali once this year to visit his family for the first time in four long years.

Sidibe plans to finish out his senior year and get to Syracuse in May for the early summer sessions. This will give him a head-start in the classroom and on the court. Bourama is a solid student who speaks five languages. When asked, Taylor emphasized that there will be none of the transcript issues that have plagued other foreign-born players.

Sidibe averaged a double-double for the Gray Bees last season, helping his team to a No. 2 ranking in New Jersey. He is primed for a big senior year, yet another important season to develop his game against tough competition. Bourama’s only played basketball for about six years and Taylor says his all-around game continues to emerge.

“When he came here as a sophomore he was athletic but not extremely skilled,” said the coach, his excitement building as he talked about his star post player. “He’s worked hard and he’s developed an offensive game. He had an immediate impact defensively. Few people have his athleticism, length and timing.  It’s unique, to have all of it. Bourama has all of it. He blocks shots like there’s no tomorrow.”

He added, “From an offensive standpoint, Bourama’s become more versatile and more skilled. His jump shot from fifteen feet is knock down. It’s money. And he’s so fast that if you come up on him, he goes right by you and finishes with either hand, left or right.”

Sidibe says the SU coaches envision him playing forward and love his ability to stretch the floor with his jumper like Tyler Lydon (although he clearly does not have Lydon’s three-point range at this point). Sidibe is known for his high motor but some things on the court just seem to be second nature to him.

“I play a lot at the top of the key and I can make a shot from the elbow anytime I want,” Sidibe said. “I really can rebound too. I feel like it’s some kind of gift, blocking shots and even rebounding. It comes naturally. It’s like a God-given gift, so I have to appreciate God for that.” 

This was said with humility and wonder in Sidibe’s voice. Not one ounce of arrogance.

This sounds all fine and dandy, so again, about those ratings.  Why isn’t Sidibe a 5-star? Why isn’t he mentioned in the same breath as the best centers in the class? Taylor was blunt with his answer.

“With rankings, a lot of it is politics,” said Taylor. “Bourama did not play the AAU circuit his sophomore and junior years. And senior year, he only played half of it because he went home to Mali to visit his family that he hadn’t seen in four years. There are a lot of players who do deserve to be highly-ranked but there are a lot of players who are under the radar and deserve to be ranked [higher] like Bourama.”

Taylor got very animated at this.

“Listen: if I’m going to war, he’s as good as any big man in the country. I don’t care who you take. Nick Richards, Deng Gak, Mo Bamba… we played against them. Bourama had better stats when we played against them. He had a great summer and he’s a lot better than his ranking.”

Taylor did acknowledge that Sidibe has a lot of work ahead of him to be physically ready for the rigors of the NCAA’s top conference.  Sidibe told me he thinks he weighs just over 200 pounds. Some reports have him at about 220.

“He’s wiry strong and really quick,” said Taylor. “He’s got to bulk up a little bit, which Syracuse will do in the off-season. Bourama’s got to put weight on so he can bang in the ACC with some of those really big bodies. He out-finesses them [in high school]. He out-runs them. But there are times in the halfcourt game he struggles because of his weight.”

So is Sidibe a developmental player, or is he ready to contribute right away next season? Once again, Taylor did not mince words.

“Was Tyler Ennis ready? Bourama will be ready right away.”

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