In advance of the 2020 NBA Draft, Peachtree Hoops is evaluating prospects with a look at what the Atlanta Hawks might be considering from now until the selection process occurs. Dozens of prospects will profiled in this space and, today, we evaluate Amar Sylla.
Having spent all of his junior career thus far with the Real Madrid Junior Team, 18-year-old Senegalese big man Amar Sylla launched his professional journey with Belgian side Oostende this season. From there, he emerged as one of the more interesting international prospects ahead of the 2020 NBA Draft.
The 2019-20 season was when Sylla arrived, so to speak.
The previous season with the Real Madrid Junior Team, Sylla had only played a total of eight games (per Real GM). However, he then signed a three-year deal (containing an NBA-out clause) with Belgian champions Oostende, where he started every game he has featured in, a total of 31, as they participated in both their domestic league and in the Basketball Champions League.
Opportunity was the name of the game for Sylla, something that just wasn’t going to come at a team like Real Madrid — not as an 18-year-old trying come through.
“I think this is the best step for me at this stage of my career,” Sylla told ESPN last year. “I’ve been told that Oostende’s coach, Dario Gjergja, is very highly regarded, and that this club has a strong reputation in Europe. This is an opportunity to get playing time in a good first division league in Europe, as well as the FIBA Champions league, something that is not possible in Spain.”
Oostende also had a clear path for Sylla in furthering his development.
“We’re building a young team with a lot of talent and we’re very happy to sign one of the top prospects in Europe,” said coach Dario Gjergja via ESPN. “I hope to be able to help Amar reach the highest levels — the Euroleague or NBA. In Real Madrid he played as a center, but I think with us he can become more versatile than that.”
“One of the things we will try to do is to develop his shooting range as fast as possible,” Gjergja continued. “The plan is to open games with him in the starting lineup, so step by step he will gain confidence and become a better player. If we will be smart with him and he shows he is capable of working hard and coming with the right mentality every day, there is no doubt that we will be successful together. If we can help Amar make the next step and develop into a NBA player, that would be fantastic for our club. All this young talent on our roster will bring more people to our gym, not just fans, but also NBA scouts and general managers.”
That’s what a lot of this year has looked like for Sylla — he played a lot of power forward and he showed development not only on his jump shot but his overall game too. You watch him and you’d forget at times he’s just 18 years old... and other times you certainly remember his age.
For the season, Sylla averaged 7.6 points per game on just under 40% shooting from the field on 7.6 attempts per game, 23% from three on 2.5 attempts, 5.5 rebounds, 0.7 blocks and 1.2 turnovers per contest in an average of 21 minutes per game, per Real GM.
For a forward, yes, it doesn’t look stellar — nothing on the stat sheet does, really — but the lens you view Sylla through is important when it comes to evaluating him.
Off the top, it’s worth bearing in mind how long Sylla has actually been playing basketball — it’s not long at all.
From that ESPN article (again, from last year):
Sylla, 17, who was born in Dakar, Senegal, has been developing in Spain with Real Madrid since 2016. He was recruited by the Euroleague powerhouse as a 14-year-old despite having only played a few weeks of organized basketball at SEED Academy in Thies.
In addition to not having a ton of experience in general, as mentioned, this was the first season for Sylla playing in a professional league and in a prominent role. Oh, and he’s 18 years old — the criteria for evaluation here is a little different compared to other prospects, don’t be put off by underwhelming stats on paper.
Despite his underwhelming stats on paper, Sylla is rated highly, to the point ESPN have Sylla ranked 40th overall on their ‘Best Available’ list — that’s not insignificant by any means at all.
So, what is it that has people intrigued about the 18-year-old Senegalese prospect?
Let’s start with the physical tools, because there’s a lot to like here. Arguably, this is the most attractive thing when it comes to Sylla right now.
Standing at 6’9, Sylla is a very mobile big who is very easy on his feet. Now, some of that might slip somewhat in the future because Sylla needs to add muscle but the original point still stands: he moves very well for his size. Sylla is also equipped with a reported 7’3 wingspan, which obviously leaves teams frothing at the prospect defensively, in addition to his quickness.
What does it translate to offensively? Well, it can lead to big plays like this:
Here, Sylla makes a nice read of the defensive line and puts himself in position to sneak back-door on the cut, where he is found for another athletic finish:
Again from the wing, Sylla makes the cut on the zone defense, has to adjust somewhat in the air but finishes the play with the flush, showcasing his ability to finish above the rim with his length:
Maybe you can already see the intrigue before watching other parts of his game: good size, potentially interchangeable at power forward and center, athletic, moves well, good wingspan... That in itself is enough to catch attention.
How about the rest?
Well... it needs work which, again, is to be expected when talking about an 18-year-old big who has barely played up to this point.
Let’s start with three-point shooting, which is one of the points of emphasis for Sylla’s development this season. For his role and minutes, he certainly got his attempts up there: 78 on the season but only converted 18 of them.
You can get a decent look at his form on this corner three attempt:
On another corner three attempt, Sylla’s form again looks a little off on this miss:
Again, same story, Sylla just isn’t able to convert with consistency at this stage:
Teams will just dare Sylla to shoot from the outside, such as this possession where the defender backs off of Sylla, but the young man was at least confidant enough to step into the three and make it:
Not once during that particular game (where Sylla scored a season-high 20 points) but twice too:
You can kind of get a sense for Sylla’s three-point shooting on a few makes and misses, but in reality there’s not a ton of use dwelling here for too long: it’s a new aspect of his game that will (hopefully) improve. Again, you’re buying into upside and I’d say there’s enough to get started at least.
Sylla lacks a soft touch around the rim at this point, reflective of his sub 40% shooting percentage from the field.
On this possession, Sylla drives to his right, spins but his hook with his favored left hand misses:
Coming out of the pick-and-roll, Sylla catches the easy pass but can’t convert at the rim in a position where he probably should:
Shot selection was a concern last year and it was a concern this season at times, too.
This clip, I believe, amalgamates the two in one, as Sylla attempts a shot that isn’t fantastic considering the traffic and help defense, has his shot blocked and the second effort also falls short:
Here, Sylla not only, arguably, gets away with a hook but his decision to take this shot, which he loses dramatically on the way up:
On the surface, this face-up shot with a defender right there probably wasn’t the best idea, and I think that was reflective in the end result:
Here, Sylla encouragingly takes the ball coast to coast with good speed but when he goes to work in the post, it becomes clear that Sylla is not going to make a ton of progress but he elects not to pass but takes a tough, contested fadeaway shot that misses poorly:
Shot selection will be one of the key areas where Sylla will have to improve — an essential key to improving his, at the moment, poor efficiency from the field.
Sylla showed flashes of offensive competency — not in one area in particular but in a couple of areas.
On this possession, Sylla receives the ball on the wing where he drives and whips out a nice hesitation dribble to bait the defender before utilizing his quickness to beat him and finishing at the rim:
Some might argue that that was a carry, but what I loved looking at that was how Sylla could develop into a slashing forward with that combination of quickness and the use of dribble.
Sylla’s length and size combined with his athleticism should mean he’ll be able to contest for some offensive rebounds and the opportunity for second chance points:
Let’s move onto defense, which is a mixed bag for Sylla but, again, the potential upside here is strong given his quickness and his length.
While he has those physical attributes going for him and they’ll continue to trend upwards in the future, he still needs to fill out his frame because at the moment, opposing 4s and 5s can take advantage of him in the post, and they look to do this on an often-enough basis.
In transition, Sylla is unable to impose himself physically and is powerless to prevent position from being established on him, leading to the seal and the easy bucket at the rim:
On the block in the half-court, Sylla finds himself quickly losing ground in the post and can’t do anything to prevent the easy score at the rim:
But even with this lack of comparative strength compared to other players who play the same position, his length can make up for it in some spots. On this possession, even though Sylla bites a little early on the fake, by the time the shot is released, Sylla’s vertical contest is virtually there with the release point of the shot, perhaps affecting this shot after Sylla was backed down in the post with ease:
However, when Sylla gets it right, the results can be effective as he showcases his length by producing the block on this play in the post:
Let’s stick with the physical stuff — Sylla’s superior speed at his position comes to the fore not just offensively but defensively too.
Here, Sylla is a little late to recognize the need to switch but is able to make up for it as his quick feet gets him in a position to make life a little difficult for the offensive player and deter the shot at the rim:
Again, Sylla is little late to make the switch here but is able to make up for it, quickly moving to plug the gap, prevent the penetration (and the breakdown, with his teammate able to go back to his man having been ready to have to rotate if Sylla wasn’t able to get there) and force the pass:
As the shot clock winds down towards the end of the third quarter, Sylla sticks with the drive (despite the push-off attempts) and forces a horrible shot:
Sylla’s fundamentals on defense are a little inconsistent, as one might expect, at this time. On some plays, he knows where to be/what to do.
Here, nothing wild or next level, just a simple read to make the rotation and force the pass to the corner, even though that three-pointer is made:
Just looking to see if he can make the read at this stage, nothing crazy.
When the defender falls down, it’s ‘next man up’ as the rotations to make up for the fallen defender take place, and Sylla plays his part in stepping up and forcing the pass:
Again, nothing high level, just looking to make the read.
There are some occasions (and we’ve seen a little bit of this already) where Sylla sees the problem but is a little late reacting to it.
Here, Sylla is a little late on the help defense rotation and gets called for the goaltending violation:
Then, there are other instances where Sylla just gets it wrong (not exclusive to rotations).
On this possession, Sylla doesn’t recognize, as the help defender, that he’s the one that can influence this play but he doesn’t spot the rotation and it results in the basket and the foul:
Whether Sylla could’ve actually prevented the bucket is obviously unknown but it’s the rotation he should be looking to make.
Here, Sylla allows a pass to the moving cutter in a situation where he probably shouldn’t, and his block on the shot is ruled a goaltending violation:
On this play coming out of bounds, Sylla finds himself beaten and doesn’t really challenge/contest the shot at the rim, leading to the bucket:
In transition, Sylla gets sucked in when there are two other defenders in pursuit and fails to realize the danger-man is the trailing shooter, who receives the ball and hits the three-pointer:
Let’s land this thing...
I imagine the impression you might draw from Amar Sylla based on the footage and the stats might be underwhelming — the offense isn’t quite there, the shot isn’t quite there, the defense isn’t quite there overall and the passing isn’t even worth talking about.
I know I’ve said this so much that the cows have come home, but Sylla has, I think tremendous upside as a prospect who doesn’t turn 19 until October. He’s a good athlete, he’s long, he’s quick on his feet (flashing upside on both defense and offense) and clearly has potential to blossom into a potential two-way player.
As a best-case scenario defensively, Sylla can be this quick-footed defensive player with good athleticism and length to bother and contest shots, as well as switch defensively potentially 3-through-5 (more so small-ball 5’s, potentially some 5’s if he can add a little weight).
Offensively, the best case for Sylla is that he develops an outside shot, which will be the key — potentially a make-or-break — for Sylla offensively. If he can do that, and the defense keeps up, Sylla could be a player who can play the 4 and small-ball 5. The quickness emerging from pick-and-roll could be fun too, and if Sylla is able to add a slashing element to his game where he exploits the slower 4’s and 5’s, it becomes really interesting overall, but the shooting is the key...as is the shot selection, that’ll need to improve.
There’s a chance that Sylla could emerge into a fine NBA role player (maybe even a starting-caliber player if things go well) and I think the reward outweighs the risk, especially if he falls beyond the mid-second round, as projected by ESPN. You’re buying into the upside.
If any team is looking to make a home-run swing, Amar Sylla might be someone to keep an eye on...