|Mouhammadou Jaiteh has had limited playing time but the experience he is gaining in the French locker room is invaluable|
By Mark Woods
The rookie sits on the bench, engaged and alert, hoping for a call to enter the fray. He listens attentively in timeouts, soaking up a few directions pointed out from his team-mates. As the buzzer sounds, he smiles the smiles of one more victory for France. But for the second time at EuroBasket 2015 so far, Mam Jaiteh has been a mere spectator rather than making his contribution on the floor.
It was always destined to be this way for the 20-year-old center, the only newcomer this summer who was handed the opportunity to make a championship debut when Alexis Ajinca departed just a week before the tournament began.
"It's been amazing for me because I didn't expect this," he says. "Being part of such a team is special. I had a mind-set that's been focused on how I can help the team in the best way I can. And I've learnt so much about the intensity involved."
Jaiteh, who plays for France Pro A club JSF Nanterre, has come a long way at quick speed. Barely seven years ago, in fact, he had scarcely even picked up a basketball. Didn't even want to, he smiles. Active resistance. It was football and nothing else, from dusk until dawn near his home in Paris, even though he was quickly growing into a friendly giant.
|Jaiteh already has plenty of accolades to his name, incuding a EuroChallenge title|
"Somebody was always asking me to play basketball," he recalls. "I didn't want to. I didn't even really know the sport. But around 12, I just went to see a game. Just a small team."
It was, he declares, the first time he had seen people who were taller than him, who were equally above the norm. "It made me feel comfortable. That night, I played for hours. Same the day after. I came to see my soccer coach and told him I was out. And the next day I started basketball."
At INSEP, France's national sporting academy near Paris, they pick the best of the best youth and hope to mould them into adults with talent and poise. Tony Parker passed through here. Boris Diaw and Joffrey Lauvergne too. The departed Ajinca as well.
The greatest graduates get their picture on the wall of fame. It is an aspiration for all. In his first year with their team, Jaiteh was the MVP of the Pro B league. It changed everything. "INSEP launched me," he says. "It was the starting point for everything."
He returned this summer for France training camp. This time, it was not his contemporaries to challenge him. Instead, those who have already made their way in the world, and followed a path to the NBA. Another lesson, another test.
|Jaiteh has been impressed by the intensity of players such as Rudy Gobert (pictured) and Joffrey Lauvergne, even in training|
"You see Rudy Gobert and Joffrey, how they go hard every time," Jaiteh notes. "They never give up. Even when you think they will, they don't give up. For me , that's been great to have that competition in practice. It's helped me to raise my level and gives me extra experience. Same with the older guys like Florent Pietrus. I've learnt a lot from them, how they play, how they use their smarts."
Les Bleus made him welcome, he confirms. The new kid with the big grin and the 2.08m frame to match. As with any squad, there are rituals to perform for the initiation. "I had to sing Happy Birthday on the bench," he reveals. "I had to do a practice without shorts. But that has been a good mentality. It's helped me settle into the team."
Earlier this year, Jaiteh pondered his own NBA route, having helped Nanterre to win the EuroChallenge and becoming a Pro A All-Star for the second time in his short career. His name was submitted into the Draft as an early entry candidate. Soundings were taken. Advice sought. The feedback was mixed. His standing uncertain. It was a difficult time, he admits. Ultimately, his name was not called when the picks were unveiled.
But is it still an ambition? "Sure. I'm always thinking about it. It wasn't a great thing but it's not the end of the world. I just have to have a big year."
In his debut appearance in Montpellier against Bosnia and Herzegovina, he was granted eight minutes and picked up two rebounds but was scoreless. In the build-up, in a friendly with Germany, he landed five points and four boards. There are signs of immense promise. His time is not now, but to come.
"The EuroBasket will help me," he declared. "And it will be good for me."