Wizards' Bilal Coulibaly marks his Brandon Ingram faceoff as his 'Welcome to the NBA' moment: "I was playing great defense!" (Exclusive)

Bilal Coulibaly tells all about his Wizards experience as a rookie, Victor Wembanyama and more
Bilal Coulibaly tells all about his Wizards experience as a rookie, Victor Wembanyama and more

Even as he bore an infectious smile, Washington Wizards rookie swingman Bilal Coulibaly still bore some disappointment.

After admiring LeBron James from afar in his native France, Coulibaly missed the Wizards’ 134-131 overtime loss to the Lakers on Thursday because of a pelvic contusion. After also studying Paul George from afar, Coulibaly held out hope the Wizards’ medical staff will at least clear him for Friday’s contest against the LA Clippers. Even so, the Clippers have listed George as questionable after missing the past two games with a left knee injury.

Undoubtedly, such absences could damper Coulibaly’s rookie season which has featured highs as an intriguing two-way player and lows with the Wizards’ 9-50 record. Nonetheless, the Wizards’ No. 7 draft pick has prided himself on his resiliency and his determination.

Coulibaly has much bigger aspirations than just eventually matching up against his idols.

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“I’m trying to get back next year as an All-Star, for sure,” Coulibaly told Sportskeeda. “Next year - as a team - we’re getting better and getting more wins and getting into the playoffs.”

Bilal Coulibaly interview (Exclusive)

Coulibaly spoke to Sportskeeda about a number of topics, including how he has handled defensive matchups against top players, playing last year in France with Victor Wembanyama and how Carmelo Anthony, James and George sparked his interest in the NBA.

Editor’s note: The following one-on-one conversation has been edited and condensed.

What do you take away from the season so far?

Bilal Coulibaly:

“I’ve learned a lot in the first part of the season. My teammates have been talking to me at practice and have been learning new things with new coverages. I’ve learned a lot.”

What have you learned?

Bilal Coulibaly:

“Defensively, the coverages. They are a lot different. Going through them against different teams has helped me a lot. It has helped me get better defensively.”

How do the defensive coverages compare to when you were overseas?

Bilal Coulibaly:

When I was overseas, it was the same coverage almost for every team. But here, each team is different and each player is different. We are changing each and every game.”

And you’ve taken on some of those individual matchups against top players. You’ve had [Jayson] Tatum, Kawhi [Leonard], [Donovan] Mitchell…

Bilal Coulibaly:

(interrupts). “Yeah, I’ve had all of them (laughs). Everybody is different. By playing against them, I’ve learned a lot about the game. I’m just getting better after I play them. I love it.”

How do you compare and contrast the challenges of those specific defensive assignments?

Bilal Coulibaly:

“Donovan loves to dribble and get to his stepback [jumper] and everything. But when you play someone like Kawhi, he likes to get in the post. He has so many different post moves. Tatum just does everything. He has stepbacks. He can go through the paint. He has post-up moves. Everybody is way different. You got to lock in before the game. I’m just contesting the shots as much as possible. You know they’re going to hit tough shots. But you just have to contest defensively to make everything harder. That’s what I did, so I think I did a pretty good job.”

Out of those matchups or any other time, when did you feel like you had a ‘Welcome to the NBA’ moment?

Bilal Coulibaly:

With Brandon Ingram, I was playing great defense. But he was just getting his shots. It was tough mentally (laughs). It was tough. I was like, ‘What can I do better?’ He had fadeaways. He was getting that mid-range. I was contesting as much as possible. But he’s taller than me and longer than me. He was getting those shots up.”

What I’ve learned about you, though, is that the team views you as a ‘next-play guy’ and that you don’t get discouraged. Where does that come from?

Bilal Coulibaly:

“That’s a good question. Just in life, I’ve been through a lot. Sometimes, you got to get over it. I learned that if you get over it and think about the next thing, you’ll be better. Just don’t stay on the same thing because you’ll keep it in your head. Then, you’ll be frustrated and everything. And I don’t like that.”

When you say you’ve been through a lot, from what you’re willing to share, what experiences have shaped you to have that attitude about things?

Bilal Coulibaly:

“Just family things and in life with a lot of changes. Just family things. I don’t want to get deep into it. But that made me grow up faster.”

Fair enough. Are there any basketball examples as you progressed as a player in France that you think helped you become resilient?

Bilal Coulibaly:

“Just when you’re on social media, you talk about all the grownup people talking bad about you. You wonder, ‘What are they doing? Why are they saying that I can’t do that?’ Then it gets through your head and everything. After that, I got off social and everything. I just focus on myself.”

So you’ve stayed off social now, too?

Bilal Coulibaly:

“Yeah. Once in the morning, but not constantly every day like I used to.”

In what ways has that helped you as you’ve gone through your rookie season?

Bilal Coulibaly:

“You’re just focusing on getting better. You’re not worried about, ‘Oh, he said that! I’ll prove him wrong that I can do that!’ Nah, nah. I’m just focusing on myself with getting better.”

You’ve shown some promise as an outside shooter. What do you think has helped you show that part of your game?

Bilal Coulibaly:

“It’s the work that I’ve been putting in, even before the season. I wasn’t that good of a shooter since coming here. The 3-point line is farther than it is overseas. So it was tough. But I worked on that, and got better.”

What were the highlights of being in the Rising Stars during All-Star weekend?

Bilal Coulibaly:

Oh, man. It was so good. I learned a lot. I talked to Pau Gasol, who was my coach. He gave me a lot of advice. He just told me to keep doing what I’m doing and to keep working and I’ll be straight. After the game, he told me to keep working and do your thing. He said, ‘You have a lot of potential.’

What did you think of being able to reunite with Wemby?

Bilal Coulibaly:

“That was nice. I had a lot of flashbacks from the year before. It was so cool to play with him. Even though it was for two minutes, it was good.”

To what extent have you two stayed in touch this season?

Bilal Coulibaly:

“At the beginning, we did. But now we've got a lot going on. We don’t have the time like that. We have the jet lag and everything. But we’ve been texting each other.”

It’s not a surprise. We knew Wemby would be great. But what do you make of his rookie season so far?

Bilal Coulibaly:

“I’m not surprised about it. I knew he was going to be that good. He knows what he wants. He’s put in the work in. I’m not surprised about it.”

How have you two managed with being on losing teams?

Bilal Coulibaly:

“We just know that for my part, we are rebuilding. Everybody has been through it. OKC and Orlando went through it, and now they’re on top of the league. That’s why I stay locked in. I know what we’re going to get better. And Wemby is just doing his thing. He’s trying to grow with the team. He’s getting better each and every game. So that’s what we want.”

How did Wemby help you with when you played together last season [at Metropolitans 92]?

Bilal Coulibaly:

“That was my first year as a pro. That made me learn a lot about basketball. I’m an extremely young guy. That’s when I really started to learn basketball. It was everything about being a pro on and off the court and knowing what you have to do to get your body right.”

I was reading that making the ‘Rising Stars’ is one of your goals. What are your next goals?

Bilal Coulibaly:

“My next goals? I would say ‘Rising Stars’ was cool. But I’m trying to get back next year as an All-Star, for sure. Next year as a team, we’re getting better and getting more wins and getting into the playoffs.”

What’s your sense both from coach/teammate feedback and your own feelings on what you need to do to be considered an All-Star?

Bilal Coulibaly:

“To be an All-Star, you just got to work on your game. Live in the gym. Take care of your body first. That’s the most important thing. You got one body, so you have to take care of that. After that, it’s just work. I’m trying to work as much as possible. But at the same time, I’m trying to take care of my body with my treatment guy and physiotherapist. I’m always trying to work as much as possible. They told me about work ethic. Just keep working. Sometimes as a rookie, they told me that between December and January that you may feel tired and everything. Some people call that the ‘rookie wall.’ So I’m just going to keep working, so I don’t feel that way.”

What’s your routine with that game days and on non-game days?

Bilal Coulibaly:

“On game days, I’ll come in the morning and get some treatment. After that, I’ll go to shootaround and stay after to get more shots and more reps. Before the game, I’ll get my warm-up time and treatment time. Then I’ll play the game. After the game, I’ll get treatment again. It’s all about taking care of my body. Then on non-game days, I get treatment in the morning. Then I practice. Then I get treatment after practice. Then I’ll get some more shots. With the training, it has helped me stay ready. Shooting-wise, getting a lot of reps has helped me keep my mechanics good.”

Considering how global the game has become, how did you get introduced to basketball?

Bilal Coulibaly:

“That was crazy. I started with judo. Then, I was supposed to play soccer. But there were no spots [available]. So, I started basketball for a year and I loved. That’s when I was 10 or 11.”

How did you start getting interested in watching the NBA?

Bilal Coulibaly:

“My father was a big Knicks guy. I used to watch Melo a lot. That’s when I really started liking the NBA. Then after that, I started liking LeBron and Paul George.”

How did those three stars catch your attention compared to the league’s other stars?

Bilal Coulibaly:

“I was just watching Melo because my father is a Knicks fan. But I loved his game. It was so smooth and everything. LeBron could get a bucket whenever he wanted. He was better than everybody at the time with Miami. He’s still one of the best today. It was his consistency. With D-Wade and Chris Bosh, he had great players on his team. But he was the best. I watched a lot of PG. He’s a great two-way player. That’s what I’m trying to be. He’s playing as good defensively as he is offensively, and he can get up his shot whenever he wants. I really love his game.”

How did you manage to follow the league despite the time difference [six hours]?

Bilal Coulibaly:

I was sleeping late. I slept really late last year (laughs). I’m not going to lie. I mostly watched the Eastern Conference games because they were a little bit earlier. Then I watched the Western Conference games the day after.”

How much do your family and friends do that for you now?

Bilal Coulibaly:

“They’re still awake. I don’t know, but they’re still awake. They watch the games live. I’m like, ‘Man, ya’ll really like me!’ It’s crazy. I love it.”

What has it been like to get adjusted to the U.S.?

Bilal Coulibaly:

It’s been different. The U.S. is way different. The people and their mentality, everything is way different. Everything is bigger. Everybody knows what they want and will do whatever to be on top of what they want to do. If you want to be a basketball player, they’re not trying to just be a regular basketball player. They’re trying to be the best basketball player. This is the biggest difference. Now it’s like, ‘Me too. I want to be the best now. It changes my mentality. I love it.”

How have you adjusted with all the travel?

Bilal Coulibaly:

“That’s been the biggest thing with traveling. Traveling is insane. We’re traveling like every day on the plane. That’s the biggest difference than playing overseas. We weren’t flying. We were taking the bus from one city to another, and we had one game a week. At first, I was always knocked out. I was tired and thought, ‘Man, this is crazy.’ But now I have a routine, so I’m used to it.”

Mark Medina is an NBA insider for Sportskeeda. Follow him on X, Instagram, Facebook and Threads.

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Edited by Amulya Shekhar
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