30 June, 2018
08 July
11 Oumar Ballo (MLI)
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"Target" Ballo shooting for Quarters, inspire young Malians

ROSARIO/SANTA FE (FIBA U17 Basketball World Cup 2018)  - Oumar Ballo understands he might have a target on his back at the FIBA U17 Basketball World Cup 2018, but he is hoping to lead Mali past Australia into the Quarter-Finals, and in doing so inspire more young Malians back home. 

Mali captured their first ever men's title last summer by beating Egypt for the FIBA U16 Africa Championship 2017 crown. That put the country in the U17 World Cup for a second straight time. Ballo and co. have been solid in Argentina as they gave Serbia a real fight before losing handily to the United States and then beating China to take third place in Group B.

"I think we are a better team than last year. The guys have been working a lot this year and having so many talents playing in different countries now also brings us more experience," said Ballo, who himself plays in Spain. "We all want to make great things at the World Cup, but also in the future."

Ballo himself shows that the future of the big man is changing. The 6ft 9in (2.05m) mountain of a man grew up, not surprisingly, idolizing Shaquille O'Neal.

"I started loving Shaquille O'Neal's game and his physical impact. I am a big man, a guy that puts a lot of impact on the court," he says with a smile. "So he was my first inspiration: his post game, the way he impacted the game at both ends of the floor is very impressive. I try to copy what he does, to learn some moves by watching videos of him and trying it on the court."

But with Shaq no longer in the game, the game is changing and as has Ballo's latest role model.

"Now I try to learn more about Anthony Davis' game. The game is changing. The big man has to know how to spread the floor, to shoot from the three-point line and impact the game in different ways," Ballo said.

The 2002-born big man's game has not gone unnoticed. He was on the All-Star Five at the U16 Africa after averaging 14.4 points and 12.8 rebounds in Mauritius. And this season he has garnered MVPs or All-Star Five selections at a number of tournaments in Spain and Europe. 

"I did show that I can impact the game and I gained confidence and experience at the international level, which is very important. I knew coming in that I would  be a 'target' at the World Cup, a player that is going to catch a lot of attention by our opponents, but I am ready for the challenge," Ballo said. "I can say that last year's U16 African Championship helped me reach another level. I know how to handle the pressure and to have responsibilities, so I will be ready to help my team have a great tournament."

Ballo has averaged 15.7 points, 13.3 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.0 blocks in Argentina - all that despite being not turning 16 years until July 13. But more importantly he and the team have played well and given the people back home a reason to cheer.

"Our mindset is very positive and we are going to fight and play well to represent Mali the best way," he said. 

Mali have been making a big push at the youth level with two straight appearances at the U17 World Cup and four top three finishes in the five FIBA U16 Africa Championships - not to mention four straight top-four showings at the FIBA U18 African Championship and two appearances at the FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup. There are many Mali players in the NCAA in the United States and in Europe, as well as a flag bearer in the NBA with Cheick Diallo.

"We have tons of potential, and with a lot of work, we can make history to a very high level. I think our future is bright," Ballo said. "What's also important is that all the young players, including myself, are inspiring the other kids in Mali to play basketball by showing them that everything is possible. We are all proud of being from Mali, and we want to be great examples and athletes for our fellow compatriots, and most importantly the youth."

All the while, for Ballo, showing that Mali players can excel with a target on their backs.