Clippers select Michigan's Moussa Diabate in NBA draft

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Michigan forward Moussa Diabate plays during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game.
Michigan forward Moussa Diabate plays during the first half on March 1 in Ann Arbor, Mich. (Carlos Osorio / Associated Press)

The Clippers selected Michigan’s Moussa Diabate with the 43rd pick in Thursday’s NBA draft, a selection representing a bet on the 6-foot-10, 20-year-old’s long-term potential.

The French-born Diabate, who was a five-star recruit while playing for four high schools, the last in Florida, entered the draft after one college season. He averaged 9.0 points, 6.0 rebounds, nearly one block and 1.5 turnovers, making 56% of his shots inside the arc for the Wolverines. He averaged 24 minutes in 32 appearances after entering the team’s starting lineup in December.

“He has an unbelievable motor, who’s shown an ability to switch and guard multiple positions,” team president Lawrence Frank said.

Frank said the Clippers see him as a center and power forward but believe his balance and frame could lend himself to guarding wings later in his career.

“He’s a development project,” Frank said.

With the Clippers in win-now mode and expecting to compete for an NBA championship next season with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George back healthy, the most logical pathway for developing Diabate appears to be spending plenty of time with the team’s Ontario-based G League affiliate next season, possibly on a two-way contract. Frank would not comment on which type of contract Diabate would sign.

His selection was the team’s first move of an uncharacteristically quiet night. The team had made a draft-night trade in every draft since 2015 before Thursday.

“I’d say coming into a team, I feel my role ... is going to be as an energizer,” Diabate told the Detroit News in May. “Playing defense, grabbing rebounds, running the floor. Just being athletic and communicating on the court and just being somebody that gives energy every single time.”

League observers believed the Clippers, who have a returning starting center in Ivica Zubac but little other big-man depth — backup center Isaiah Hartenstein will be a free agent June 30 — would target a forward or center and indeed they went after Diabate and his 7-3 wingspan, which Clippers brass saw in person during a June workout.

An injured ankle had scrapped plans to work out a week earlier, Frank said, but the team was impressed by his energy during the second visit, even though it was Diabate’s 21st pre-draft workout. Nicolas Batum, a fellow France native, watched the workout and was impressed, Frank said.

“There may have been French bias,” he said.

At the combine, Diabate flashed the skills that led to the selection. He was among the fastest and most agile players at his position, based on timed runs, and his 36½-inch vertical leap was the highest among centers. Diabate was also notable for his 2.7% body fat percentage, the lowest of any player.

“When you do good in the testing, I think the team can trust you more,” Diabate said at the combine. “They see potential, and probably I’ve shown them something they were surprised of, that they probably didn’t think I had in me.”

The Clippers have had trouble developing young big men in recent years after drafting frontcourt players. Daniel Oturu, added in 2020, lasted only 30 games. They traded a future first-round pick in 2019 to move into the first round to pick Mfiondu Kabengele, but he didn’t last two full seasons with the team before he was traded. Brice Johnson, the 25th overall pick in 2016, played just 12 games with the Clippers. Diamond Stone, another 2016 acquisition, played seven career games. The current front office wasn’t in place for the Johnson and Stone picks.

Diabate’s selection starts the busiest period of the team’s summer calendar.

The Clippers must decide by June 29 whether to extend qualifying offers to Jay Scrubb, Amir Coffey and Xavier Moon to make them restricted free agents. They must also decide whether to exercise their team option on Zubac, though the team highly values the center.

Batum, the forward with a player option for next season, is still expected to decline the option to become a free agent, and Yahoo Sports reported that multiple championship-contending teams have shown interest in the 15-year veteran’s services. Batum has expressed his interest in returning to the Clippers several times this offseason.

The Clippers are not considering trading guard Luke Kennard, multiple people with knowledge of the team’s thinking said. A report Wednesday suggested the Clippers were “shopping” the NBA’s most accurate three-point shooter last season, but the people were adamant that is not the case, and that the team has no interest in moving the floor-spacing guard.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.