Sophomore star from Senegal taking Colorado basketball by storm

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“Holy crap.”

That was Nathaniel Owen’s reaction to seeing Assane Diop play basketball for the first time.

Owen is a sophomore at Belleview Christian School in Westminster. Diop – originally from Senegal – is living in Colorado with a host family and attending school at Belleview.

“People around me said to go play baseball,” Diop says.

Those people gave Assane good advice, because as a 6-foot-11-inch 16-year-old, the basketball court seems like a smart place to spend some time.

“He snatched a rebound out of the air and just turned and fired it 84 feet to a kid in stride and the kid caught it right under the basket,” says Belleview’s head coach Tim Owen, remembering the first time he saw Assane play basketball. “It was like a quarterback out there. Me and my coaches just looked at each other and were like: what did we just see?”

If you’re a Colorado sports fan that type of play likely sounds familiar.

“He’s an African American Jokic,” says Nathaniel Owen, confirming my belief that Diop is similar in game to Nuggets All Star center Nikola Jokic.

“He’s pass-first so he gets everybody involved,” says Owen. “He doesn’t like dunking, so I get on him for that, If I was 6-foot-11 I’d be dunking every time.”

The similarities to Jokic don’t end on the basketball court. Assane’s also in the middle of learning English for the first time.

“When I first came here, I didn’t know anything,” says Diop. “Sometimes people would try to talk to me, and I didn’t know what they were saying.”

English is Assane’s third language. In just over a year, he’s gone from not knowing how to say thank you to cracking jokes on the court.

“I just try,” says Diop. “Sometimes I know the word I say is not right. Sometimes they laugh at me, like ‘what did you say?’”

He attacked learning English like a two-three zone, with a ferocity learned from family.

“In Senegal they have a thing called ‘Teranga,’ which is hospitality, determination, dedication, humility, it’s their core values,” says Coach Owen. “Everything he’s done you can see he’s had that engrained in him since he was a little kid.”

Now Assane has a new family – the Belleview community – helping make Colorado feel like home.

“If I have a good game, I come to school and oh my goodness,” says Diop. “People say, ‘hey good game’ and ‘congratulations’ and things like that. That makes me so happy.”

In addition to being a phenomenal athlete, Assane’s beloved because he’s modest.

“He’s such a humble guy, everything’s about other people,” says Nathaniel Owen.

“What he does here on the court doesn’t even compare to what he does off the court,” says Coach Owen.

The Bruins are in pursuit of a Class 1A state championship, but Assane Diop’s future may feature a match up with none other than Nikola Jokic.

I asked Coach Owen what his ceiling might be.

“With his work ethic, honestly probably NBA.”