Bilal Coulibaly’s usage rate as a rookie was low. But does that matter?

WASHINGTON — The Washington Wizards’ front office, coaches and staff members have approached the development of prized rookie Bilal Coulibaly in the same way that an architect designs a building.

In both cases, a solid foundation matters most.

The Wizards took a deliberate, long-term approach toward the 19-year-old’s growth this season, building him up one or two pieces at a time instead of demanding too much from him too soon.

“We were taking our time, because, like they said, I’m young and I’ve got all the time in the world to improve in everything,” Coulibaly said. “They were doing things the right way.”

Team officials asked Coulibaly to focus on his defense and on acclimating to life in the United States and the NBA. Those on- and off-court challenges were not to be underestimated. As the young Frenchman learned how to guard some of the league’s most talented perimeter players, which would have been a challenging assignment for any teenager, he also was living overseas for the first time.

One of the last things the team’s brain trust worried about early on with Coulibaly was the number of shots he attempted. While Coulibaly was welcome to shoot, his volume of shot attempts mattered far less to Wizards officials than seeing him take the right kinds of shots. Through that lens, an open corner 3 was an ideal shot; a contested midrange attempt, widely considered one of the least efficient shots in pro basketball, was to be avoided.

So, it’s no wonder that Coulibaly’s statistics — particularly the stats that fans and the media often cite to gauge a lottery pick’s early success and predict his long-term future — appear underwhelming. He averaged only 8.4 points per game. In addition, according to the NBA’s data, Coulibaly ranks 21st out of the 24 Wizards players this season in usage rate, which is an estimate of the percentage of team possessions someone ends with either a shot attempt, a trip to the free-throw line (not counting and-1 opportunities) or a turnover. Only Daniel Gafford, Delon Wright and Johnny Davis compiled lower usage rates for Washington this season than Coulibaly’s usage rate of 13.9 percent.

Team officials indicated they regard Coulibaly’s low usage rate as a positive, not a negative, in part because it demonstrates that Coulibaly played within the flow of the offense and avoided taking ill-advised shots. To put it another way, the Wizards’ brain trust believes Coulibaly played “the right way” by largely limiting himself to efficient shot attempts and — in an attribute that usage rate does not directly measure — made quick, smart decisions with the ball.

“We wanted all of our players to play within the framework of what we’re trying to do,” interim coach Brian Keefe said in an interview with The Athletic. “I think that’s what one of his strengths is. He plays a game that’s unselfish. You can see that he can see passes and see angles. It’s pretty impressive. And he’s going to continue to make the right play. He wants to play (with) a winning impact, and you can see that on both ends of the court: obviously defensively. But he also plays that way on offense, where if someone’s open, he’s going to swing it to him. And that’s a maturity that’s pretty wise beyond his years, also, that he can make the right decision play after play.”

Coulibaly’s on-court smarts are even more impressive considering that he was the NBA’s third-youngest player this season, trailing only Brooklyn Nets wing Dariq Whitehead and Memphis Grizzlies forward GG Jackson II.

Coulibaly played in only 63 games because he suffered a season-ending fracture in his right wrist on March 16. But despite that injury, Coulibaly still played 1,715 total minutes this season, the ninth-highest total among rookies, trailing only Oklahoma City’s Chet Holmgren, Charlotte’s Brandon Miller, San Antonio’s Victor Wembanyama, Miami’s Jaime Jaquez Jr., Utah’s Keyonte George, Golden State’s Brandin Podziemski and Portland’s Scoot Henderson and Toumani Camara.

“If you look back on young wings and young bigs getting on the floor, getting the minutes, getting the experience in Years 1 and 2, through our research, is the most important thing,” Washington general manager Will Dawkins said. “And he was able to get those consistently this year, which is very valuable for his future and predicted success.”

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Bilal Coulibaly made 35 percent of his 3-point tries on 2.9 attempts per game. (Brad Mills / USA Today)

Dawkins and other Wizards officials do not draw comparisons between Coulibaly (and others on their roster) to other players throughout the league. That exercise is a fool’s errand, in part because it can place outsized expectations on young players. It’s also unfair to those players who have accomplished a lot over lengthy careers.

But, without naming names, Dawkins did acknowledge that there are well-regarded veteran swingmen whose rookie-year usage rates mirrored Coulibaly’s.

Kawhi Leonard posted a 14.1 percent usage rate as a rookie on the San Antonio Spurs’ star-studded 2011-12 team (and also played 181 fewer minutes than Coulibaly did as a rookie). As a second-year player with the Chicago Bulls, Jimmy Butler had a team-low usage rate of 14.4 percent.

The point isn’t that Coulibaly will develop one day into the next Leonard or Butler. No one suggested that.

The point is that usage rates for a rookie or second-year player are not necessarily predictive of a player’s long-term offensive production or his overall value to a team.

“There are a lot of young wings that had similar usage, similar stats that took their time to become the players that they are now,” Dawkins said. “And we see him in line with guys like that. So, we’d rather have a pure-intentioned player that he already is than force him to be something he’s not. And that’s the way the game is supposed to be played.”

To outsiders at least, Coulibaly remains a difficult player to project offensively, largely because of his age. But he showed promise, particularly early in the season. In November, he shot 47 percent from 3-point range. His accuracy diminished as the season progressed, dipping to 25 percent in February on higher volume, because those November figures were outliers and perhaps because Coulibaly wore down a bit. For his entire season, Coulibaly shot 35 percent from beyond the arc.

“I think I’ve been solid with it, consistent most of the year,” he said. “At the end of the year, I was a little bit tired. It happens. Everything goes down a little bit. But I did a pretty good job to be locked in and knocking down those shots.”

If Coulibaly had not injured his wrist in mid-March, he almost certainly would have assumed a larger offensive role during the season’s final month as veteran players such as Tyus Jones and Kyle Kuzma missed games down the stretch. In that sense, the last several weeks have been a missed opportunity for Coulibaly to expand his game.

Dawkins said the team and Coulibaly have turned his absence into a positive, allowing Coulibaly to get a head start on his offseason training, particularly in the weight room. The extra month may be especially useful because there’s a real possibility that Coulibaly will spend time playing this summer for the French national team in the 2024 Summer Olympics.

Anthony Gill, one of the veteran players who has taken Coulibaly under his wing, noted that Coulibaly, despite having a cast immobilizing his right wrist, was one of the first players in the Wizards’ weight room on Thursday. Coulibaly also did an on-court workout.

Coulibaly said his offseason developmental priorities will be to work on creating offense for himself and for teammates when he gets the ball and getting into his shot more quickly.

If nothing else, team officials know Coulibaly will put in the work.

“The major takeaway from Bilal is we asked a lot of him, not just on the court, but also professionally within the walls and in the community and asked him at a very young age to be an example for what a Wizards player is,” Dawkins said. “And he bought into everything. At a young age, he’s able to connect with everyone on the team, and that’s a rare attribute for a young player.”

To put it another way: The foundation for the rest of Coulibaly’s career is in place.

(Top photo: Tommy Gilligan / USA Today)

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