By John Denton
May 18, 2017
ORLANDO – While the decision to remain a candidate for the NBA Draft or return to UCF figures to be a difficult one for Tacko Fall, the center has faced a dilemma nearly as massive as his 7-foot-6, 300-pound frame before.
Following his junior season of high school at tiny Liberty Christian Prep in Tavares, Fla., Fall was first noticed and scouted by former UCF assistant coach Tim Thomas. Eventually, Fall – a native of Dakar, Senegal who had come to the U.S. just two years earlier – gave a verbal commitment to play basketball for the nearby Knights. As his game continued to grow and begin to match his enormous size – a process that was helped greatly by playing for the Orlando-based AAU team sponsored by former NBA standout Amare Stoudemire – Fall suddenly had approximately 40 schools offering him basketball scholarships.
Among those schools, Georgetown University used Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer and Congolese center Dikembe Mutombo to try and recruit the big man to play for the Hoyas. Meanwhile, former Georgia Tech assistant coach Mamadou N’Diaye – one of the men responsible for helping bring Fall to the U.S. from Senegal – was also hot after the services of the big man.
UCF, coached formerly by Donnie Jones, wanted to do everything in its power to hang onto the blossoming big man, so they went to his mother for assistance. The only problem was that she spoke only French and the school had to enlist the services of French lecturer Dr. Elizabeth Giltner to communicate.
Together, all sides were all able to convince Fall that he would be best-served attending UCF and remaining close to his host family, Davis and Mandy Wettstein. Fall said on Thursday that there was another reason why he chose to stick with a UCF team that committed to him long before many others did.
“I’m loyal and I like to keep my word,’’ Fall said following a workout with the Orlando Magic. “If I say one thing, I don’t want to change it. It was hard because there were a lot of the biggest schools making really good points. But I chose to stay at UCF because of everything that I saw that we could accomplish and everything that I could do for UCF and the city.’’
Fall’s loyalty toward UCF is tugging at him once again, but he also wants to explore his possibilities as a shot-swatting big man at the NBA level. Fall made massive gains in his strength, conditioning and overall understanding of the game between his freshman and sophomore seasons and he is now considering whether he should try his luck in the June 22nd NBA Draft or return to UCF for another year of seasoning.
Fall has until the NCAA-mandated date of May 24 (Wednesday) to decide whether to keep his name draft eligible or return to college for a junior season. He’s now worked out for the Magic, Lakers and Celtics and he said the feedback that he’s gotten will go a long way in helping him make another highly stressful decision.
“Regardless (of which decision he makes), I’ll be in a good position,’’ said Fall, who has another workout scheduled with the Utah Jazz and he could go through drills next week with the Houston Rockets. “Definitely, if I stay in college, I feel I will make bigger jumps like I did last year. After I get more feedback and I talk to (UCF) coach (Johnny Dawkins) and my family, then I’ll know and I’ll make a decision.’’
Though most mock drafts don’t have Fall being picked until late in the second round of the NBA Draft – if at all – he is an intriguing prospect to many NBA teams because of the major strides that he has made in such a short amount of time playing the sport. A soccer player while sprouting up in Senegal’s capital city and someone not expected to grow to be 7-foot-6 because of the relatively average heights of his father (6-foot) and mother (5-foot-9), Fall didn’t start playing basketball until he was 15 years old.
His first-ever college game at UCF saw him face off against fellow 7-foot-6 Senegalese center Mamadou N’Diaye, then with UC Irvine for the tallest tip-off in NCAA history. Fall mostly struggled with his strength, conditioning and coordination as a college freshman, averaging 7.4 points, 5.9 rebounds and 2.3 blocks in just 17.6 minutes a game for the Knights.
Following a full year of strength and conditioning work, Fall’s production started to climb toward his nearly 10-foot standing reach and eight-foot wingspan. This past season, he had four 20-point games, 17 double-digit rebound nights and 15 performances with at least three blocks. Not only did he help UCF lead the nation in field goal defense (36.1 percent) and win the American Athletic Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year award, he was a key forced in the Knights making it to the NIT semifinals. In what could prove to be his final game at the collegiate level, Fall swatted six shots and added seven points and five rebounds before fouling out.
That dramatic growth led the Magic – more specifically interim GM Matt Lloyd – to notice the impact that a rim-protecting center like Fall could have on a NBA team.
“We’re lucky because he’s in our backyard and we’ve seen him probably more than any other (NBA) team because we’ve gone (to UCF) to watch him against the opponents and he’s gotten much better,’’ Lloyd said of Fall, who had big games against Mississippi State (26 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks), Villanova (20 points, 13 rebounds and one block) and Miami (Ohio)(31 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks) and averaged 10.9 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.6 blocks while shooting 71.5 percent as a sophomore. “Coach Dawkins and their staff have done an amazing job getting him in shape and getting him stronger and he’s such a bright personality. He’s such a smart and intelligent kid that he brightens up the room when he comes in.’’
Most likely, Fall still has a lot of work to go until he is NBA-ready because of the physicality, mobility and stamina needed to play at the highest level. If he does turn pro, he very well could spend a season in the NBA Development League in hopes that he can continue to grow his game. And if he goes back to UCF, he figures to be more of a sure-thing draft pick this time next year.
An ideal scenario, he said, would be landing with the Magic and staying near an Orlando area that he had choices to flee coming out of high school, but he instead decided to remain true to his word.
“I’ve been to a couple of Magic games and I love this city,’’ he said, referring to Orlando. “This city has given me a lot since high school. Part of the reason that I chose UCF is that I love the city. It’s a great city.’’
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