You could be forgiven for thinking this year’s NCAA Tournament, the culmination of the college basketball season, is all about Zion Williamson and his Duke teammates. Williamson is the most gifted player to step on a collegiate court in years – the sure-fire No1 overall pick in the upcoming NBA Draft – but he may not be the most effectiveplayer in college basketball.
That would be Tacko Fall, a 7ft 6in center from the University of Central Florida. And, yes, you read his height correctly. Fall’s size and skills have scrambled basketball: he’s in the midst of the most efficient career for any player on record – and he’s only been playing the sport for seven years.
The 23-year-old moved to the US from Senegal a little over seven years ago. Fall was already huge when he left Senegal and he learned how to craft his own shoes and clothes to make life easier. His mother, who along with his father is tall but not extraordinarily so, did not see her son play basketball competitively until his final home game of this season.
A mini-documentary shot while Fall was still in high school has garnered over 2.4m views. Yet he was viewed more as a curiosity than a basketball prospect. “I definitely don’t just want to be seen as an attraction. I’m a man of faith. I’m a pretty smart guy,” Fall, who is studying computer science, told Bleacher Report this month. There’s more to me than just my height. I’m a human being just like you.”
And he is a dominant basketball player, too. Fall is on pace to shatter the NCAA’s record for field-goal percentage, breaking Steve Johnson’s all-time mark of 67.8% set in the 1980s. If Fall’s rate holds during the tournament he will break the record by six percentage points.
Fall is officially the tallest basketball player in college, and taller than anyone in the NBA (and some at UCF claim he has grown by an inch this year). He can put the ball in the hoop without jumping: he just reaches up on his toes, like he’s putting something on the highest shelf, and lets the ball slide out of his hand for the simplest of two points.
Games begin to looks like an overly enthusiastic gym teacher has joined in a pickup game against seventh graders. It just doesn’t seem fair: Fall is too big, too tall, too skillful. Just watch the clip above: in a little under three minutes, you’re treated to the full Fall experience. He drives and he dunks. He posts up and boxes out. He blocks shots and defends everyone from the point guard to center. You almost see the will drain from his opponents. Why even bother trying to contest his shot or jump for that rebound?
And to think, Fall is producing at this rate with little to no high-level experience prior to enrolling in college. He didn’t play for a major high-school program. He never competed in a Fiba-sanctioned tournament internationally. Fall is operating strictly on natural talent, and merely scratching the surface of what he can become. His coaches and teammates love him as much as the opposition hates playing against him. “[He] takes away half of your playbook,” Houston coach Kelvin Sampson told theAssociated Press.
He’s no longer ogled solely because of his atypical height, either. He is a defensive savant: he flies around for blocks, skies for rebounds, and makes others better. Prior to Fall’s arrival, UCF were one of the leakiest defensive teams in the country, with only four trips to the NCAA Tournament and no wins. Since Fall’s arrival, the Knights have finished in the top-10 in field-goal percentage each year. This year’s squad is the best in the school’s history, and they could make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
Still: there are doubters about Fall’s potential as a professional. NBA scouts continue to view him as a novelty rather than a first-round selection. In the pace-and-space era, big men are asked to play like small men. They need to be able to shoot three-pointers and guard multiple positions. The NBA has no time for back-to-the-basket big men anymore. Teams may carry one guy, at a push, but he’s unlikely to see any action in crunch time of a playoff series.
Fall has never attempted a three-point shot. And according toFiveThirtyEight, Fall has attempted only 11 jump shots in his entire college career. Not attempting 11 jump shots in the first quarter of an NBA game alone is almost grounds for dismissal.
But why should Fall bother? Teams shoot more threes because it’s mathematically prudent: three points are – duh – worth more than two. So teams stack the deck in their favor by gunning three-point attempts. Their field-goal percentage may drop, but when they do score, the basket is worth more. But that changes when you’re discussing the most efficient two-point scorer in history. Then it makes more sense to chuck the ball inside and let a gigantic human being throw the ball over the top of a smaller, but still large, one.
And that’s the niche Fall is looking to carve out. Teams would prefer their own Steph Curry, sure. But no one is passing up a modern Shaquille O’Neil. Fall has a chance to put up dominant performances, on both ends of the floor in the NCAA Tournament, and in doing so may change the minds of some NBA decision-makers and secure a long-term basketball future.