Sekou Doumbouya couldn't stop smiling Tuesday during a short Zoom call with reporters. He smiled about his growth this summer. He smiled at the thought of how much better he can be in his second season with the Pistons. He smiled because he's 19 years old and he's playing in the NBA, and the NBA is about to return.
The last time Doumbouya took the floor for Detroit, he scored two points in 22 minutes in a blowout loss to Philadelphia. That was 265 days ago. It's been more than 300 days since he scored in double-digits. It's been almost a full damn year since he went toe to toe with King James and gave birth to the legend of the Prince.
You get the point.
The NBA was easy for Doumbouya in his first season, and then it was really, really hard. Of course it was. He debuted at 18 years old, the youngest player in the league, and let's remember he didn't begin playing this sport until the age of 12. He couldn't miss a shot, and then he couldn't make one. His energy was surging, and then it was sapped.
It was early in February, after a stretch of poor games, that Dwane Casey admitted he was "very concerned" about the rookie's "lack of passion." Doumbuoya went quietly into the offseason. And then he went to work, every day, for the next 265 days. So there was that smile on Tuesday, as the Pistons opened training camp. It shined through Doumbouya's massive hands even when he tried to conceal it.
"My offseason was, I think, one of the best offseasons that I’ve had. It was just fun," he said. "I learned a lot about myself, about my game, about how coach wants me to play, about a lot of things. I’ve been working every day."
First back home in France, then here in Detroit for the past several months. Doumbouya's disappearing act toward the end of last season enlightened him to the rigors of playing in the NBA. Now he's prepared for Act II.
"I realized that I have to be in better shape, because when I’m in better shape I can do whatever I want," he said. "I mean, for everybody, if you’re in better condition, you do everything better. You run better, you’re a better defender. So I worked on my conditioning, my three-point shot, everything, but especially on my conditioning and my body."
Whenever he was asked about Doumbouya throughout this long offseason -- and he was asked about him a lot -- Casey pointed to those summer workouts. He talked about how hard Doumbouya was training, and how he seemed to have taken last year's lessons to heart. We know the talent is there. Now it appears Doumbouya has the mentality to match it.
"I thought he had an excellent summer," Casey said Tuesday. "One thing he’s gotten used to is the intensity of how he goes about his work."
The Pistons will be a different team this year. New GM Troy Weaver might prefer the term 'restoring,' but this a full-blown rebuild. The overarching aim of this season -- the "organizational goal," said Casey -- is to develop the team's young players. Throw them in the deep end and see who can swim. After testing the waters last year, Doumbouya knows what to expect. So do the Pistons.
"We expect him to take the next step as a second-year guy," said Casey. "Is he going to turn into a fourth- or fifth-year guy right off the bat? We'll see, but he’s in that group of players who we need to develop and give time to this year."
Doumbouya turns 20 on Dec. 23, which may well be opening-night for the Pistons. Where were you when you turned 20? I was trying to talk my way into bars in Boston, same place where Doumbouya hung 24 points on the Celtics last season and whipped a weary fanbase into a frenzy. Then he fizzled out, and the Pistons faded from view, and we fixed our gaze on three new first-round picks.
As the spotlight dimmed, Doumbouya's future got brighter. Just like his smile on Tuesday as he thought about everything in front of him this season.
"How much better am I going to be? I mean, I worked for it, so y'all gonna see. I really, really worked for it," he said. "I think it’s going to be a big difference between last year and this year."