French wing Bilal Coulibaly, a projected first-round pick, told ESPN he has submitted paperwork to the NBA office to make himself eligible for the 2023 draft.
“The NBA has always been a dream of mine, and now it’s a goal,” Coulibaly said. “It’s the natural next step in my evolution.”
Coulibaly, the No. 26 prospect in ESPN’s draft projections, has broken out in the French first division over the past several months, emerging as an important rotation player for Metropolitans 92 in Paris alongside projected No. 1 pick Victor Wembanyama. Coulibaly has scored in double figures in four of the past 10 games while delivering a slew of impressive highlights on both ends of the floor.
“My defensive abilities allowed me to get on the court and impact the team in a positive way,” Coulibaly said. “I credit being part of the professional group early on, being integrated quickly into the group and having a coach as great as Vincent Collet guide me. My confidence grew as opportunities came.”
Coulibaly, whose parents are from Mali, stands 6-foot-8, 194 pounds with a 7-foot-2 wingspan. He is the third youngest player in the ESPN 100 at age 18 but is on a different trajectory from most prospects in this draft, being an almost complete unknown even in France a year ago after a late growth spurt that took him from 5-11 as a 16-year-old.
Since last summer, Coulibaly has been on a steady ascent, having a strong showing with the French national team at the FIBA U18 European Championship and outdueling Bronny James in an exhibition game in Paris several weeks later in August by scoring 25 points, mostly in the second half, in a come-from-behind win.
“I got better physically and technically,” Coulibaly said. “I’m focusing on my jump shot, but really I work on everything to be as complete a player as I can. The key has been just being confident and implementing in games what I learn in practice.”
Coulibaly struggled to get on the floor for the Metropolitans’ senior team in the first half of the season, seeing most of his time in the U21 Espoirs league, where he was the best player in the league and averaged 21.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.6 steals and 2.5 assists per game.
Injuries on the Metropolitans roster and Coulibaly’s steady transition to the pro game helped him find a foothold alongside Wembanyama on the first team, whose games have been well scouted by NBA executives watching the likely No. 1 pick.
Coulibaly, who first played with Wembanyama when they were 12 years old, said he understands the platform his teammate’s significant star power provides everyone in his orbit.
“It’s funny we again find ourselves in the same team as young pros,” Coulibaly said. “I try and not think about it too much, focusing on doing what the team needs to win. I’m grateful that the gym is packed every game, home and away. As a player, you want to be in such environments, so being able to experience such things in my first professional games is amazing. I don’t take it for granted, and I embrace it. It makes me push harder and demand more of myself.”
With his elite dimensions, Coulibaly’s defensive potential is considerable, as he is regularly tasked with slowing down point guards and shows impressive quickness covering ground and contesting shots on the perimeter. Although not a consistent shooter, Coulibaly grew up a guard and retains many of those perimeter skills.
Younger than several high school seniors projected as one-and-done prospects next year, Coulibaly was deemed more of a 2024 draft prospect for much of the season but has given himself an opportunity to be a first-round pick with his recent play and long-term upside.
The challenge he will face is that, like Wembanyama, his season will likely extend well into June, depending on how far into the playoffs the Metropolitans go. That might make it difficult for Coulibaly to participate in pre-draft activities, including private workouts, as most NBA teams would hope.
Coulibaly has until the June 12 early-entry withdrawal deadline to decide whether to keep his name in the 2023 draft or attempt to be a top-10 pick in the 2024 draft, which is considered to be a weaker class.
“I’m taking things one after the other,” Coulibaly said. “After the season, I’ll go to Dallas, where my agency is based in the U.S., to work out and prepare, with my mindset on the fact that I will be staying in the draft. I’ll discuss with my agents after and see what we decide.
“For now, I’m focused first on the end of my season with the Mets, competing to win it all. That’s my main goal. I’m talking with my agents and trusting what the future holds for me.”
Jonathan Givony is an NBA draft expert and the founder and co-owner of DraftExpress.com, a private scouting and analytics service used by NBA, NCAA and international teams.