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The Journey: Cheickna Dembele

02/09/2016, 6:30pm EST
By Taylor Hicks

6’10 center from Mali is ready to play at a high major program

Chambersburg, PA -- When thinking of a foreign big man prospect, the words: raw and developmental come to mind. They usually aren’t ready for the physicality and speed of a high level of basketball and sometimes take years before finally making an impact, if they ever pan out at all. A prospect that defies those stereotypes is considered a true hidden gem, especially when they have only been in the country for 3 full months. 

Meet Cheickna Dembele, a 6’10 center from Mali, Africa. A big man with a passion for the game of basketball and a desire to be successful in whatever he does. 

Dembele first picked up a basketball four years ago, having been told he was far too big to even think about playing soccer. 

He found a perfect fit at the Scotland Performance Institute, located in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. Although the school is currently in its first season, it is on the path to success thanks to an excellent coaching staff compiled of former Division 1 and Division 2 coaches, Jareem Dowling, Jon Valeriano and Josiah Whitehead. 

Head Coach Jareem Dowling had first started to assemble his team this summer when he first heard about Dembele through a friend of his. With no way to communicate due to Dembele living in a small village, a person close to him was able to ensure that he would be well taken care of and receive some of the best coaching in the country. 

“We were very fortunate that his family trusted us to handle Dembele and mold him into the best young man and basketball player that he can be,” said Coach Dowling. 

Dembele packed his bags and arrived in the United States in November of this year, with nothing but a dream of playing in the NBA someday, not knowing what his future held. 

“I was waiting for him outside of the airport and he was all smiles from the moment I saw him. He couldn’t have been more excited for the opportunity,” said Coach Dowling remembering the moment. 

Although Dembele has been doing a lot of smiling, Coach Dowling and his staff are the ones beaming from ear to ear once they saw what he could do on the basketball court. 

On both ends of the court he is, to simply put it, a problem for opponents. With a long wingspan and great defensive awareness, he is an elite shot blocker especially on help side. Dembele, unlike most bigs, has great hands and runs the floor like a gazelle, showing just how active and mobile he is.

“When I first came to America, I wanted to be like Serge Ibaka,” said Dembele when talking about who he wants to mold his game after, “now I like Anthony Davis as well.” 

Dembele wasn’t someone that needed to be taught how to shoot a ball or dribble like most of the big men from Africa that come to American to play basketball. He can stand out from 17 feet and knockdown jumpers all day long. With a pure stroke, he has the ability to hit from behind the 3-point line as well.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that Dembele is just a skilled big man. As the 6’10 center has added 25 pounds (210 when arrived but 235 now), he is capable of drop stepping and dunking on a helpless defender in the post as well. His post moves definitely aren’t finished products yet but he has been learning several that he now uses with regularity, such as an up and under move. 

His season averages of 16 points, 11 rebounds and 4.5 blocks per game, not to mention knocking down 80% of his free throws, are an indication of what Dembele is capable of on the court on a nightly basis. The thought that this big man will only continue to get better and better has college and NBA scouts drooling. 

Dembele’s development from November to now is scary according to Scotland’s coaches. He is in good hands with Coach Dowling and his staff. “Every member of the staff has college coaching experience and many of them played as well,” remarked Dowling, who worked with Donnie Tyndall at Morehead State and Southern Miss, and also named Bill Lewit, Kevin Reynolds, Doc Sadler, Tevester Anderson, Minnesota Timberwolves coach Sam Mitchell and former NBA coach Mike Evans as some of his coaching mentors. 

While the coaches continue to seek to develop Dembele as a big man, he in turn has been the constant motivator on and off of the court for the Scotland Performance Institute. 

“On the court he’s like Kevin Garnett in terms of overall communication and leadership,” marveled Coach Dowling. “He passes out waters to kids during timeouts and is extremely coachable and honestly is the most selfless player I have ever coached along with being a great teammate.”

Dembele’s attitude helps remind everyone to cherish the small things in life that are so often taken for granted. His teammates are energized by his cheers from the bench and desire to go out of his way to encourage and uplift everyone he comes in contact with.  

Although he is receiving the most recruiting interest on the team, the Scotland Performance Institute also has a host of other kids that Division 1 and Division 2 need to go check out as well. 

Aside from being the total package as a high-character 6’10, 235 pound center from Mali that is an inside/outside threat on offense and is ready to contribute and make an impact for a high-major program next season, Dembele is just a normal high schooler.

He enjoys watching soccer and says his favorite team is Real Madrid, which makes sense why he thinks Cristiano Ronaldo is the best in the world. His favorite food is Chipotle and he loves listening to Reggae music. Dembele’s English has improved just as much as his overall basketball game as well from when he first arrived several months ago. He is a devout Muslim as well, making sure to never miss daily prayers. 

High-major Division 1 programs have seen how much better Dembele has gotten in such a short time as: Iowa State, St. Joe’s and just yesterday Missouri have extended offers to the 6’10 center from Mali. He currently holds interest from Maryland, Georgetown, UConn, Baylor, Providence, LSU, Pitt, and others as well. Several high level coaches and scouts have made it known that Dembele has NBA potential, something that is obvious when spending some time in the gym with him. 

With 8 brothers and sisters’ back home and seemingly all of Mali rooting him, Dembele puts on for the entire country each and every time he takes the court. With the success that he has already had, coupled with his skill set, size, attitude, passion and motor, the sky is the limit for him as he continues his dream of playing basketball at the highest-level one day. 

Scotland Performance Institute’s head coach is Jareem Dowling

Coach Dowling’s cell number is 443-466-8154

Coach Dowling’s email is jd@spi.institute

Special thanks to the owner of the Scotland Performance Institute, Isiah Anderson, and the athletic director, Diallo Daniels, for making this all possible. 

Special thanks to the house mom, Beverly Atwater, who makes meals for all of the kids and makes them feel at home.

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