The Basketball Infant: 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall’s basketball journey is just getting started

Dan Forcella/UCF Athletics
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WASHINGTON, D.C. — Let Jamill Jones tell it, and the change we’ve seen in UCF center Tacko Fall this season has everything to do with one, simple character trait that isn’t always easy to find in guys with his size.

Fall has fallen in love with the process.

That’s not always true with kids that play basketball because they’re big. Basketball is what you do when you’re that big. There’s nothing wrong with turning the physical gifts you’ve been blessed with into a free education and some fast cash coming out of college, but often times, that’s why 7-footers find their way onto a court. They play basketball because they’re tall, not because they love the game.

According to Jones, who left VCU to join Johnny Dawkins’ staff at UCF in April, that’s not the case with Fall.

“Tacko really does love basketball,” Jones, who coaches UCF’s bigs, said. “I think early on it was difficult for him with the expectations. Dealing with the, ‘Oh, you’re 7-foot-6? You should just dunk everything.’ That’s not reality.”

It was a confidence issue for Fall as much as anything. Fall, who just turned 21, arrived in the United States from Senegal when he was 16. He didn’t start playing basketball until October of 2012.

He’s a 7-foot-6 basketball infant, and it wasn’t until this season that he realized just how good he can be.

The transformation started in the spring, when Fall and UCF strength and conditioning coach Alex Parr dedicated themselves to changing Fall’s body.

“I was on the track. In the weight room. In the gym. Every day,” Fall said. “Alex Parr [made] a program where they made me do a lot of stuff that will help me not get injured. Just running up and down is not good for my knees and ankles, so they had me strengthen them. That, flexibility, conditioning, going to the track and just running miles. Going to the weight room and getting in more reps. Getting on the court and working on switching directions.”

Fall bought in, and it didn’t take long for that work to manifest itself in his ability to have an impact on the floor. You can’t ask for better positive reinforcement. Every dunk, every blocked shot, every pickup game his team won. It all boosted Fall’s confidence in himself, and that, in turn, only increased his appetite for the process, his desire to put in the work that it takes to get better.

“It’s instant gratification,” Jones said “When you see the hard work you put in translating into the game, you want to do even more of it. Instead of second-guessing coach, it’s, ‘Coach, you’re right.'”

“I could tell I’m getting better,” Fall said. “But there’s a lot of things that I can still learn. I’m still young in the game. This is just my fourth year playing basketball. I know there’s a lot of things I can [improve on]. Even during the season, every game I can make bigger strides.”

The biggest change in Fall this season is his conditioning, his ability to not only stay on the floor but to be effective as opposed to sucking wind. Fall is averaging 27 minutes as a sophomore, up from 17 minutes as a freshman. He played 37 minutes, scoring 20 points and grabbing 13 boards, against No. 1 Villanova. He played 35 minutes against Penn and 33 minutes against UMass. It’s not easy to have that much of an impact when you’re gassed after three trips up and down the court.

“Tacko could always run, but not for long periods of time. Now he gets up and down a lot better,” Jones said. “Early on, he would hit walls and wouldn’t push through. Now he’s getting to the point where when fatigue is setting in, discomfort is setting in, he can give a little bit more.”

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The next step was to teach him to embrace his size. Fall is a shy kid. When he arrived in this country, he had a limited ability to communicate in English. Even when he wanted to, Fall couldn’t just blend in. At 7-foot-6, you get attention everywhere you go.

Jones kept hammering the point home: On the court, that size is what makes him special.

“The kid has a 10-foot-5 standing reach so when he shoots a hook shot he’s literally throwing the ball in the basket,” Jones said. “You should be comfortable and happy that you can play above it. Most guys in the country can’t play at that height for long periods of time. He lives there.”

The results have been better than UCF could have asked for. Despite having just seven healthy scholarship players, the Knights were 7-1 on the season before starting point guard B.J. Taylor went down with a thumb injury. Fall is averaging 14.0 points and 12.5 boards, which is second in the country, while swatting 2.7 shots a night and changing countless others. And he is still a long way from being a finished product. His lateral quickness needs a lot of work. He needs to add strength to his lower body; with such a high center of gravity, stronger players can move him out of position too easily. He gobbles up everything that comes to him but he can still get better at rebounding out of his area. He’s shooting 34.1 percent from the free throw line.

He can still get much better.

And that’s why Fall has real a chance to make it in the NBA.

As one NBA scout phrased it, “he’s new. He’s unique.” Those scouts watch more basketball than anyone. When they’re evaluating a 6-foot-4 point guard or undersized big or 6-foot-11 post with perimeter skills, they have an idea of what that guy can be. They’ve scouted a player like that hundreds if not thousands of times before.

People his size, however, don’t come around that often, especially not when they can move the way he moves, when they are coordinated as he is, when they have the touch and the softs hands that he has.

“He’s a talented kid. His size adds a different dimension out there, but he’s got some talent,” said Maurice Joseph, George Washington’s head coach. The Colonials have played UCF in each of the last two seasons. “His timing is a lot better. His hands are a lot better. His offensive skill set is better. Last year he was strictly a dunk guy. This year he’s added a jump-hook with both hands. He’s tall so he can shoot over people but he wasn’t doing that last year. His balance is better.”

“It was a long summer,” Fall said, knowing just how many long summers he has in front of him, “but it was worth it.”