By Artau Pascual

The second-best European player in the upcoming 2023 NBA Draft plays in France. In the same team as Victor Wembanyama. Bilal Coulibaly, a 6’7 2004-born French wing with an outstanding 7’2 wingspan, has gathered the attention of the NBA during this season because of his high-level prospect status. He is a key piece of Metropolitans 92’s roster, a team that has given themselves a legit chance to win the LNB Pro A title.

There’s a lot to like in Bilal’s game. He started the 2022/23 season playing heavy minutes with the U21 team, handling a high-usage role on the offensive end. In those minutes, we figured out an intriguing offensive skillset, but it became a challenging task to figure out how he’d be able to translate this playing style to bigger stages in the short term. The turning point was when he established himself as an important part of the first team rotation: approximately in early 2023, Coulibaly started to consistently demonstrate why his athleticism, defensive versatility and overall instincts and feel to be at the right spot at the right time on the offensive end are worth to consider for NBA teams.

A massive off-ball threat

The main part of Bilal Coulibaly’s game on the offensive end comes from his off-the-ball productivity. He has already shown good signals about how he would interact with NBA-type of playmakers. He’s taken advantage of the gravity two players like Victor Wembanyama and Tremont Waters -no longer with the team- have and has found ways to turn this into real results thanks to his willingness to cut, relocate and be proactive off-the-ball. Bilal’s ability to contribute in the margins of the game makes life easier for ball-handlers.

Bilal Coulibaly puts rim pressure without needing the ball in his hands. It’s all about athleticism and feel. His strides are long and aggressive, and he’s able to absorb contact or work above the rim, so his versatility as a finisher also helps to solidify his status. The most interesting part of this skill is not only how much of an asset for the system is but how much danger adds to the game in non-schemed situations. His development as an off-ball player has been a key reason simultaneously for his team to win and for himself to build his NBA status, and that’s great news because it’s a translatable role for a player like him.

During this season, he’s also done some huge improvements as a shooter. In previous years Bilal was a streaky shooter with inconsistent results, but this season he’s not only found consistency in his shooting mechanics but, since the start of 2023, he’s turned into a close to 40% shooter. The sample is small because his shooting volume is reduced. However, it’s not tough watching his game to understand how these developments have helped him to earn a spot in the rotation and, also, how they have contributed him to unleash his game.

In open-floor situations, it’s also easy to see how natural the game comes to Bilal Coulibaly. He has all the required tools to be an efficient scorer in fastbreaks and transitions: his spatial awareness to fill the lanes is already at a good point, and he has the athletic tools to easily create distance with his assignment when leaking out or just after setting the fastbreak. Bilal’s interaction with wide spaces is great: he’s a solid athlete in straight lines, his speed and fluidity fit well with his characteristics, his lift is really good, and he has some go-to-moves like Eurostep that help him to build paths to get to the rim. 

All this low-hanging fruit makes of Bilal Coulibaly the kind of player that easily finds his place in the NBA. He could slide to a low-usage role and would also benefit from NBA spacing. If we add to all this skillset his above-average offensive rebounding instincts for a wing, the result is the kind of player that, without having a system centered on him, can take advantage of multiple schemes. 

What can he provide on ball?

We’ve mentioned Bilal’s skillset as an opportunistic scorer, but during the start of the 2022/23 season we were also able to see him handling a high usage role as the leader of the U21 team. Lately, also, he has started to create some buckets for himself in halfcourt situations with the first team. First version doesn’t seem easy to translate -there are heavy reasons to believe his ceiling in this area is more limited than off-ball-, but he certainly has intriguing tools to develop as a driver.

Bilal’s room for improvement as a ball-handler is huge: his handles aren’t tight, he needs to work on his shiftiness to turn directions and his passing vision isn’t reliable enough to create from a standstill. This is being said, his fluidity and game-processing quickness suit well in the profile of the players who do a good job attacking from second side actions and closeouts.

His decision-making is sharp, he knows how to get to the rim and create positive situations for his situations both off one or two feet, he doesn’t tend to catch and hold, and he’s also a reliable live-dribble passer. All of these skills, added to his scoring ability, make of Coulibaly a player who should be able to do simple, functional reads and feed his teammates without the need of creating advantages from a standstill.

Obviously, as happens with every other player when they are so young, there’s still plenty of margin to figure which kind of role would he be able to handle in a best-case scenario. Bilal Coulibaly has plenty of work to do in terms of outside shooting self creation and primary initiation, and we’ve been able to see in his last game against ASVEL -LNB semifinals-he might have some upside in this area. But the upside in these areas is unlikely going to be the reason a team drafts him in the lottery. His efficiency in the other areas jumps off the page and this could perfectly be enough.

Elite potential on the defensive end

Bilal Coulibaly is one of the best perimeter defenders in this class. It’s not only because of his wingspan, but also because of how he’s turned into the Metropolitans’ first option to guard primary ball-handlers of the opposite team. He’s taken care of elite European players like Nando de Colo, Mike James or Kyle Allman and results have been improving constantly during the season, which suggests his growth and competitiveness. Coulibaly is great at lowering his center of gravity, he’s able to navigate screens in pick&roll situations and his overall activity to stay in front of the ball is outstanding. During this season, we’ve seen how opponents had to face Coulibaly and Victor Wembanyama in 2vs2 situations and, as we all can imagine, they got lost against the length, switchability and defensive talent of the 2004-born tandem.

Obviously, a player as long and active as him must be considered a big threat as a help and weak side defender. Coulibaly thrives as an event creator on this end of the court: he can create deflections easily, he’s a proven high-level weak side defender with the ability to jump passing lanes, and he has the strength and lift to become a solid weak side rim protector. Players with his tools can overrely on physical tools and have some distractions, but his awareness is already at a good point, and that’s also an attribute that makes a difference in his favor. 

What makes him so exciting, so, is the mix of athleticism ceiling and all what he can already provide in terms of competitiveness and winning contribution. Coulibaly isn’t the kind of player supposed to bright in an on ball role. He doesn’t play in a team built around his skills and he had to grind to get the spot he has right now, either. But there are not many better indicators of how you can develop into an impactful high-level role player in the NBA than being able to produce consistently doing the very same thing in one of the best leagues in Europe, defying expectations and trying to win a title. That’s precisely what Bilal Coulibaly has done.