Last Friday, Concord First Assembly’s Cheick Traore was named MVP of a prestigious high school basketball tournament in Tennessee, flashing the type of potential that his travel ball and high school coach have been dying to see.
Traore, a 6-foot-8, 230-pound sophomore, had 22 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks in a 77-64 win over Ridgeway (Tenn.) in the championship game of the Chick-Fil-A Holiday Classic. He dominated inside, finished shot attempts near the basket and protected his team’s basket, serving as a potent last line of defense.
But with a player as young and as inexperienced as Traore, no one around First Assembly is expecting that type of performance every night.
“He’s still raw,” First Assembly coach Frank Cantadore said Wednesday at the Hoodie’s House tournament at Providence Day. “But he’s a very vocal and big bodied sophomore. I think the sky’s the limit for him.”
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Traore has been in the United States for about four months, moving here from the Ivory Coast of Africa. The adjustment, he said, has been immense, from having to leave his family to going to a different school and playing in an entirely different environment.
“It’s not easy to leave and go this far from my family,” Traore said before Wednesday’s tournament-opening 46-42 loss to state power Lincoln Charter School. “I’ve got two brothers and one sister.”
Traore struggled to score in Wednesday’s game, finishing with five points, but he had 15 rebounds, five blocked shots and two steals — showing the kind of hustle and athleticism that led Charlotte ACES coach Kevin Ligon to want to bring him to the States in the first place.
For years, Ligon has had success bringing African players stateside and enrolling them as transfer students in private schools. One of the coaches in his summer program, Julius Beke, hails from the Ivory Coast and always wanted to offer the opportunity of a free education that American high school basketball can offer in college. Ligon works with Beke and through contracts with the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders program to identify potential players for his summer team.
“I look for kids who can develop fast,” Ligon said. “And then you apply for (the proper paperwork), and if there’s a school here that’s a good fit — and I have good relationships with several private schools in the area — we try to make it work. So long as they can meet the academic qualifications, we can get them in school.”
Several of Ligon’s players who took a similar path to Traore are now playing college basketball. They include Ebuka Izundu, a 6-10 junior at Miami; 6-10 junior Ricky Gouety at Stetson; and former 6-10 New Mexico State player Bollo Gnahore.
There are also several players still in high school, like Traore and First Assembly teammate Stephen Edoka.
And when Beke showed Ligon a video of Traore playing basketball last summer, Ligon immediately thought he was looking at a player who could be special.
“He got here in August, and I worked him out and he was like a sponge,” Ligon said. “He soaked everything up. He retained information and he was very diligent. International kids have a different mindset.
“This kid is so physically strong. To make money in his village, he would carry food for miles from the market to the village. And you can see, his body is very Dwight Howard-like.”
Howard is a 6-11, 265-pound center with the Charlotte Hornets.
Cantadore, his high school coach, believes Traore will improve the longer he’s exposed to the American game.
Traore would agree with that, too.
“Here,” he said, “the game is fast. You can say young people play like old people. But my teammates and coach Frankie and coach Kevin have really helped me by teaching me how to play here. And I think I’m getting better."
Hoodies House Pairings/Scores
Wednesday’s First Round
Butler 55, Victory Christian 44
Brooklyn (N.Y.) Abraham Lincoln 49, Edgewater (Fla.) 45
Lincoln Charter 46, Concord First Assembly 42
Baltimore St. Frances 61, Carmel Christian 57
Philadelphia Neumann Goretti 56, Asheville Christian 53
Providence Day 64, Fort Myers (Fla.) 61
Asheville Christian vs. Edgewater (Fla.), 10:30 a.m.
Carmel Christian vs. Fort Myers (Fla), 12:15 p.m.
Concord First Assembly vs. Butler, 2 p.m.
Victory Christian vs. Lincoln Charter, 3:45 p.m.
St. Frances (Md.) vs. Providence Day, 5:30
Lincoln (N.Y.) vs. Neumann Goretti (PA), 7:15 p.m.