Tacko Fall, the University of Central Florida's seven-foot-six sophomore center, is more than just a physical curiosity. Although he certainly gets noticed because of his height, the Senegalese-born Fall projects to be a more well-rounded player than some similar-sized players in basketball history. Tacko's coach, Johnny Dawkins, knows this firsthand, having played alongside Shawn Bradley (7'6") and Manute Bol (7'7") on the 1993-94 76ers.
"Both of those players did pretty good, had pretty good careers, ended up playing in the NBA," Dawkins said recently of Bradley and Bol. "But they're different from Tacko. Shawn wasn't the defensive player he is, but he was a more advanced offensive player. And of course, Manute was the exact opposite: he wasn't a very offensive-minded player, but he was a great defensive player. I think Tacko has the potential to grow into something great on both sides of the ball."
Even Fall, who will star Wednesday night in UCF's first-round NIT game against Colorado, doesn't compare himself to Bol, Bradley, Gheorge Muresan, or the other giants of NBA lore.
"Lately, I've been watching a lot of Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar], because of his length," Fall said. "He wasn't the biggest guy, like Shaq, just bullying guys. He had to learn how to use his length. And he had the most unstoppable shot ever."
That's right: Tacko Fall is learning the skyhook.
"I definitely want to be the most unstoppable player," Fall said. "So why not try and learn the most unstoppable shot? I'm going to try and bring it back."
Nobody expects Fall to become the next Kareem, but it is useful to consider that the most apt comparisons for Fall aren't the guys who are his equal in height. And the fact that he's put those comparisons behind him in just his sophomore year (and just his fourth year playing basketball) augurs well for the future of someone who may end up being beyond comparison anyway.
Let's start by comparing Fall's offense to that of Shawn Bradley, who was selected with the No. 2 overall pick in the 1993 draft by the Sixers even though they already had Bol. Most people think that seven-foot-six players can dominantly finish around the basket, which makes sense; Fall's standing reach is ten feet four inches high, or literally above the rim.
Fall has shown this ability around the rim in a way Bradley didn't. In Bradley's lone season at BYU, he shot 51.8 percent from the field. Fall shot 75 percent from the field last season and, despite playing significantly more minutes and increasing his usage rate, shot 72.2 percent from the field this year.
One difference between the two is strength. Bradley weighed 235 pounds. Fall looks thin, but he says he plays at 288 (and is listed at 300).
"He's as well-proportioned as any seven-foot-plus guy I've ever seen," Dawkins said. "He's seven-six, close to 300 pounds, and looks like he probably weighs 235. And that's just because of how well he's built. And also, it's his mobility. He moves fairly well in the half-court as well as the full court. So as he continues to grow in that area, I think the sky's the limit for him."
Fall is riveting to watch, not merely because of his height—he wins jump balls without needing to jump, he puts back dunks with the ease that someone uses to flip a light switch—but because the added strength enables him to complement those plays no one else can make with plenty of physicality. No longer is he among the national leaders in offensive rebounding percentage through simply reaching up and over people, which previously left him vulnerable to over-the-back foul calls. Now he's fighting for position, he's going straight back up with the ball. And there is more room for improvement, as Fall is still learning to use his body.
Then there's the defense. Fall already sits tenth in block percentage this year—he finished third in the country last season. That he increased his minutes per game from 17.6 to 26.1 without a drop-off in performance means not only is he stronger; he's also improved his lateral movement, which helps him avoid the kind of foul problems that can often sideline bigs. Although he's only played basketball a few years, he's already mastered the need to stay straight up and not reach on defense.
And his mere presence changes the game. Bol only played in 26.1 minutes per game for one season in the pros, and was mostly a role player. But Fall is easily the best defender on his team, per Synergy, and guards B.J. Taylor and Matt Williams can afford to play aggressively on defense because they have Fall backing them up.
"You have to give up something," SMU coach Tim Jankovich explained. "You can be strong outside or you can be strong inside. But I don't think you can be incredibly strong on the perimeter and incredibly strong on the interior, unless you have a seven-foot-something shot blocker on the inside that takes away ten feet, but that's a whole other story."
During the American Athletic Conference tournament, SMU had two separate game plans against UCF: one for when Fall was in the game, and one for when he sat. The Mustangs held Fall to just three field goals in their 70-59 win, which shows how much he still needs to develop. Fall doesn't quite demand the ball yet, and often allows himself to be pushed out of position in the paint. The Central Florida schemes don't call for regular pick-and-rolls with him, either, despite his 1.727 points per possession on such plays, per Synergy, which is best in the country.
Despite having room to grow (on the court, not in stature), Fall is already playing at the standard both he and his coach targeted. Both said he should be an automatic double-double: he's averaging 11.8 points and 9.6 rebounds per game. That he's doing so while averaging just 6.5 shots per game, and while still about 15 pounds of muscle short of his targeted weight of 305, and with just a few years of experience, suggests a far higher ceiling than anyone projected.
"I talk to him all the time about impacting the game at both ends of the floor," Dawkins said. "I want impact not just defensively, which everybody can see. I want him to impact the game offensively. Because that's going to become not only a major impact player for what we want, but also for his future."
Taller players still give Fall problems defensively. Fall shot an almost unthinkable one-for-13 against East Carolina in two games this season largely due to the defensive presence of seven-foot-one Andre Washington.
"In that particular game, we wanted Andre to be able to challenge him," East Carolina coach Michael Perry said. "We thought he wasn't accustomed to people challenging his shots, particularly somebody who can keep him out of the [restricted area]. Inside the restricted area, he can dunk on anybody. Outside, he can score it, but he has to shoot shots. And even then, he's shooting shots unimpeded. But we knew with Andre's length and prowess, we knew we could make him shoot shots. And then once he started challenging shots, I think he was shocked someone could do it, and it got into his head."
Perry's take on what Fall needs to develop? "He's going to need a go-to move, with a little more trajectory to it." Like, for instance, a skyhook.
The arguments against Fall succeeding at the next level—that the league is getting smaller, with very few centers who are post scorers and defenders—should also work in his favor, since it will mean facing fewer guys like Andre Washington. Witness, for instance, Fall's perfect ten-for-ten shooting against Villanova, an elite defensive team, but one lacking a legit seven-footer with heft. If Fall can sink shots at the same rate in the NBA as he does now, he can be as efficient as a three-point shooter.
He's fortunate to have, in Dawkins, a coach who knows the league, and who doesn't selfishly use him as simply a defensive specialist.
"As a coach and as a former player, I feel an obligation to try to maximize who we think he can become as a player," Dawkins said. "So we're going to continue working with him on both ends of the floor, make him a go-to player for us in the post, and work towards that. Now, what he becomes in the NBA? We'll see what that is when the time comes. But I think it's important for me as a coach to give him all the tools he needs to be as successful as possible once he leaves our program."
That's both altruistic of Dawkins, and savvy. Fall hasn't said yet whether he'll declare for the draft, but Dawkins is making the best possible case for him to stay in school and continue developing at Central Florida instead of learning at some D-League outpost.
Once the season is over, Fall said he will get back in the gym and shoot that skyhook relentlessly. He's been deploying it in games, though he was a bit deeper than he wanted to be when he shot it once against Memphis in the AAC tournament, and again against SMU. Other areas of his game showed obvious improvement. Once anchored to the basket on defense, Fall closed out on some perimeter shooters. He noted after the game how comfortable he felt defending ball screens.
He's not ready to give up on the idea of the NBA big man just yet, though he acknowledged the game is changing. With each new skill, however, it gets easier to imagine an NBA team turning over their second unit to Fall, and letting opposing teams come up with two separate game plans. And then, if all goes well with the skyhook, the second team can evolve into the first.
"And I even feel like big men are coming back—[Hassan] Whiteside, [Andre] Drummond," Fall said. "I don't see those guys trying to shoot threes. As long as the game is around, big guys are always going to be here."
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