PULLMAN – Mouhamed Gueye wanted to “see all of my options on the table,” so he declared for the NBA draft and entered his name into the NCAA’s transfer portal.
In the end, none of the alternatives was more appealing than a return to Washington State.
“It’s always been WSU, to be honest,” Gueye said by phone Wednesday from Napa, California. “It’s just like a family. I’ve been there for a year, I know how the people are and what the team is about. The people there show love all the time and I’ve got my friends for life. The whole team and the staff, we’re all close.
“It’s a strong connection.”
Gueye, a standout in the Cougars’ frontcourt as a true freshman last season, decided earlier this month to withdraw from the draft pool and the transfer portal. He left Pullman in late April and spent the next five weeks touring the country.
The 6-foot-11 Senegal native worked out for seven NBA teams, participated in the G League Elite Camp in Chicago May 15-17 and garnered recruiting interest from a mass of high-major suitors. Throughout the process, Gueye stayed in touch with the Cougars and never seriously considered any other school.
“We’d been in contact the whole time,” he said. “We’ve just been talking about how we’re going to improve the team. They were really excited (when Gueye announced his return).”
He only scratched the surface of his potential during his rookie year, averaging 7.4 points and 5.2 rebounds per game, and still solidified himself as a professional prospect. Of course, the expectations will be greater now.
An imposing post defender with mobility and a developing shooting touch, Gueye is prepared to shoulder more responsibilities this season after a debut season that saw him start 33 games and emerge as one of the Pac-12’s elite youngsters.
“I’ll be doing the same stuff as last season, but just bigger,” he said.
Gueye expects to boost his production in part because Efe Abogidi, a two-year starter in the Cougars’ frontcourt, is reportedly heading to G League Ignite to kick off his pro career.
“Losing Efe was a big piece of that,” he said. “He’s obviously a shot blocker and all that. I’ll be blocking more shots and being more dominant on the defensive side. I’ll just be better in the game overall. I’ll be a better leader, everything.”
Eager to fine-tune his game, Gueye soaked in feedback from NBA coaches and players over the past month while competing against aspiring professionals in team workouts and at the G League combine.
Scouts and other members of pro franchises were impressed with his coordination and versatile skill set but told Gueye that he needs to pack some muscle onto his wiry, 210-pound frame.
“That will come. I’m still young,” he said. “My main takeaway was playing against (other NBA hopefuls) and seeing how they are. That boosts your confidence when you know they’re definitely not better than you. It’s been fun playing against these guys and showing people that I might be as good as him or better.”
Perhaps equally important was the opportunity to take mental notes while watching training sessions featuring established pros such as Portland’s Damian Lillard and New York’s Derrick Rose.
“It just shows what it takes day in and day out,” said Gueye, who also caught up with former Cougars forward CJ Elleby during a workout with the Trail Blazers on June 9.
Learning and adapting have been common themes over the three years of Gueye’s time in the U.S., a period of growth he described as hectic and fast-moving.
“It’s been great, but it’s been crazy,” he said.
Gueye’s journey to Pullman
Raised in Dakar – the coastal capital city of Senegal – Gueye was more fond of soccer than basketball in his youth, but several of his family members are accomplished basketball players and he was eventually convinced to try it out.
“I was playing soccer until I was 14, then my oldest brother (Abasse) said, ‘Bro, you gotta pick one,’ ” Gueye told The Spokesman-Review earlier this spring. “I was taller than all of my friends.”
He never played organized basketball in his home country, but got the hang of the sport through one-on-one exercises with his brother and pickup games at the International School of Dakar.
“They had guys from Europe, somebody who was playing in the G League,” Gueye said. “Another guy played at Clemson. They were telling me, ‘You’re good. You can make it.’ ”
At age 16, Gueye met Mamadou Cisse, a trainer based in France who is well-connected in the basketball world. Cisse noticed Gueye during a scouting trip to Senegal and took him under his wing.
“He’d take videos and send them out, and that’s how Prolific Prep contacted me,” Gueye said. “Coach Mamadou knew the Prolific (coaches) well and was like, ‘That’s the best fit for you.’ ”
Gueye jumped on the offer from the hoops factory in Northern California and set off for America in late 2019.
“My brother told me I have the opportunity to do something special and take care of the family,” he said. “It wasn’t a long time thinking about it.”
Gueye moved in with a host family – he’s staying with them in Napa – and started to adjust to the change of scenery, a “culture shock,” he said.
He enrolled at Prolific as a sophomore and was limited in his first prep season because of nagging ankle injuries. His new team included a number of future Division I signees, most notably Jalen Green, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2021 NBA draft.
The Cougars have ties to Prolific Prep, stemming from WSU coach Kyle Smith’s past coaching stop at San Francisco. WSU began recruiting Gueye in early 2020 and was the first program to make an offer.
“Bottom line, we were out front and no one else knew the race was going on,” Smith said after this season.
“You could see what he’d be in the future, and that was pretty tantalizing,” assistant John Andrzejek added. “It was a perfect situation where he was in a spot, covered up by players who were really good. … We treated him like the guy we were after.”
Gueye carved out an expanded playing role ahead of his junior season, and recruiting interest grew. He earned a four-star rating from 247Sports.com. Kansas, UCLA and Stanford were among his offers, but Gueye felt a sense of “trust” from the Cougars, who had urged him to reclassify and graduate a year early. Gueye had already completed three years of secondary school in Senegal, and because of NCAA rules he might have run into eligibility problems if he had spent three years at Prolific.
“It’s a funky deal, but that kind of cemented the relationship,” Smith said. “In good faith, we gave him the truth, and he stayed loyal to us. We knew the skinny on that. He got it done and we were ahead of it.
“Everyone else thought the finish line was 12 months later, and we weren’t sharing. I think he felt indebted to us because we gave him a path.”
Abogidi, a Nigeria native, found success as a true freshman in 2020-21. Gueye “liked the idea that a kid from Africa had already done well here,” Andrzejek said. Gueye also formed an immediate bond with WSU guard TJ Bamba, whose family traces its roots back to Senegal.
The two began exchanging text messages not long after WSU started recruiting Gueye.
“It was a lovefest a little bit,” Smith said. “Sometimes, you’re lucky.”
In WSU, Gueye saw an opportunity to play right away, and that helped the Cougars’ cause, as well.
“I thought he was definitely an NBA talent. We told him, ‘Here you’ll probably have a much better chance at getting on the floor early in your career, and that’s how you get good,’ ” Smith said. “We didn’t even guarantee starting minutes.”
Gueye signed with WSU in May 2021, becoming a top-three Cougars recruit since 2000, and captured starting duties in the preseason. He put together one of the more impressive rookie years in program history, earning an all-freshman team nod from the Pac-12 after helping WSU to its best season in a decade.
“I just adapted,” he said.
Gueye will return to Pullman next week and begin preparations for a sophomore season full of promise.
Asked about his goals this year, Gueye said: “To be the best version of myself. And as a team, to jell and make the (NCAA) Tournament.
“I’m excited. We’ve got a really good team. We’ll build chemistry and the sky’s the limit.”
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