3 years in, N’Faly Dante is finally getting the star treatment
Healthy and centered, now is the time for the 6-foot-11 center to shine on the court.
EUGENE — N’Faly Dante received a much-needed reset this summer.
After six years away from home, Dante traveled back to Bamako, Mali for the first time since coming to the United States as a 14-year-old to pursue his hoops career.
As emotionally momentous as the homecoming was — rekindling past friendships, showing off his new skills to the children in his neighborhood, eating those fabulous home cooked meals again — it was the reunion with his mother which trumped all.
“My favorite part was the first time I stepped in the house to see my mom,” he told The I-5 Corridor. “I had so much joy I wanted to cry.”
Dante never wanted to leave his mother. To fully grasp the decision, as clear-cut as it may appear from the outside, first requires an understanding of the relationship they share.
It’s soccer or basketball for kids in Bamako. Dante played soccer, but his frame — that of a future 6-foot-11 Division I center — lent itself more naturally to hoops. He enrolled in his first basketball camp at 12 and, three days in, pondered pulling the plug. Running up and down the court wore down his lower body. His mom — Dante’s everything since his father passed away when he was a young boy — wouldn’t stand to let him quit.
“‘No, you didn’t even start it yet,” Dante recalled her saying in a 2019 piece he wrote for The Players Tribune. “Get your butt back out there tomorrow.”
Dante returned the following day. Then the next. And the one after that. His love for the sport grew, but a beat up pair of Chuck Taylors ensured the ensuing soreness wouldn’t subside with the same ease. His mom eventually replaced the shoes with high-top Jordan’s she bought with money made from selling handmade peanut butter at the local market.
She was a proud supporter of his endeavors in a sport she had never seen him play. For that matter, she still hasn’t. Not once. Her belief in her son was powerful though, the privilege of a free education for him, alluring.
So much so, that she was willing to let him go.
“Leaving my mom when I was 14, that might be one of the hardest things I go through in my life,” Dante said.
Just like the advice Dante received when he nearly dropped the sport, his visit home couldn’t have been more timely.
“I think it reset his mind,” said point guard Will Richardson, Dante’s longest tenured teammate. “At first he was just being a college kid. We all fell victim to it. I fell victim to it a little bit, getting into the college life. He went home, reset his brain and saw just how where he comes from, the struggle, the reason why he left. He went back and got that motivation, like this is why you left, to go get better for all of us, which I think he really couldn't see because he just hasn't been home in so long.”
Dante’s reset comes at a critical juncture as his most pivotal season as a Duck begins tonight against Florida A&M.
A 5-star recruit out of Sunrise Christian Academy in Wichita, the center was touted as a potential first round NBA Draft selection, but appeared in a mere 12 games as a freshman after an NCAA clearance issue led to a late arrival enrollment and temporary ineligibility.
Six games into a promising sophomore breakout, he tore his ACL, terminating his season and thrusting him into a 12-month rehab cycle. He wore a knee brace and bore a minutes restriction last season as a junior, but his foul-prone play defensively only further hindered his ability to stay on the court in a season meant to help him get back up to speed.
But when he played, he produced. In 20 minutes per game, Dante averaged a promising 8.1 points, 6.3 rebounds and one block per game while leading the conference in field goal percentage (67.5).
“It just took awhile for him to get comfortable and his conditioning never got to the point where I felt comfortable playing him a lot because of the knee and fear of injury,” Coach Dana Altman said.
“The injuries are not my fault, I can’t blame anyone,” Dante added.
His journey to this point hasn’t exactly panned out according to plan. Careers seldom do. But with three years, 50 games and the ACL injury in the rearview, Dante got the Pac-12 Media Day star treatment down at the Pac-12 studios in San Francisco late last month and is seemingly on the verge of finally shining on the court.
Altman certainly thinks so, and he hasn’t been shy about painting his center as a burgeoning star.
“I think we need to get him on the floor a lot more,” he said.
“We gotta get him the ball more.”
“He’s pretty proud of the way he looks.”
After a guard-centric, oft-inefficient offense fused with a porous defense to produce the Ducks’ worst season since 2010, Altman has been vocal about the necessity of a reset in mentality, just like the one Dante underwent.
He’s preached that the most successful Oregon teams he’s coached have coincidentally been the sturdiest on the boards and defensive end. If Oregon is to climb back to that level, it’s up to Dante to spearhead the effort.
“Dante, since he's been here, you know, really hasn't been able to show what he's capable of because he hasn't been healthy,” Altman said. “But he’s healthy now.”
What he’s capable of becoming is the best two-way interior presence in the conference. Last season, he recorded 12 games with 10-plus points, had four double-doubles and six games with two or more blocks. He blocked five shots in two of his final three games. There’s a foundation of belief and all the ingredients of a leap forward.
“We know he's a monster down there,” Ducks forward Rivaldo Soares said.
Oregon plans to feed him early and feed him often. The Ducks’ will find him in transition, too, where he’s already showcased freakish speed for his size.
It’s clear: With an uptick in minutes, a brace-less knee and a clear mind, Dante’s best basketball is ahead.
When asked of long term goals, and how the bumps in the road have altered those, he shied away from a response. It’s not a question he likes answering these days. Too much can change. And too quickly, he’s learned.
“Right now, my main focus is being healthy for my team and doing the things I know I’m capable of doing to help my team win,” he said.
“Everybody’s got a dream.”
— Shane Hoffmann
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