There's more to UCF's Tacko Fall than his 7-foot-6 frame

January 18, 2017, 9:31 AM

— -- ORLANDO, Fla. -- At 7-foot-6, it used to be hard to focus on Tacko Fall the basketball player.

There was a viral Vine of a much shorter player trying to guard him in high school. There were the thick-rimmed goggles he wore on the court.

Up until this season, Fall's fame in the basketball world came mostly from being tall. His biggest headline as a freshman came from his matchup with UC Irvine's 7-foot-6 big man,? Mamadou Ndiaye. Fall was constantly asked to take photos with people gawking at his size.

"I used to have a lot of doubts," Fall said. "Are all these people just talking about me because I'm tall?"

Not anymore.

Fall is one of the most efficient and productive players in college basketball this season, ranking second nationally in field goal percentage at 79.4 percent. He's averaging 13.1 points, 10.3 rebounds and 2.4 blocks, and UCF has won seven of its last eight games. Fall went for 26 points and 12 rebounds against Mississippi State earlier this season and had 20 points and 13 rebounds on 10-for-10 shooting against Villanova.

"He was known for height more than basketball; now he's known for basketball," said Mandy Wettstein, his host mother.

"He's at the tip of the iceberg from what he can become," UCF coach Johnny Dawkins added.

FALL (FULL NAME ELHADJI SERIGNE TACKO DIOP FALL)?didn't play basketball until he came to the United States four years ago from Senegal.

While in Africa, he disliked the sport.

It got in the way of his cartoons.

"My grandma was the one that used to love basketball," Fall said. "Like five o'clock, our channel had cartoons. But some days, they had basketball games. My grandma would want to watch those games. I would want to watch cartoons. So I used to hate it back then. I just didn't understand it, and I just wanted to watch my cartoons."

Fall grew up in a big house with much of his extended family living under the same roof. Once he turned 12, Fall and his mother moved out and into a small studio apartment nearby. He played soccer instead of basketball, despite his height, because it was the popular sport.

He doesn't remember when the growth spurt happened but said the most noticeable jump happened over the course of one summer break from school.

"The doors in our school were all the same height," Fall said. "I came back, and I was ducking in. Before, I was just going through it. But now have I have to duck."

It didn't take long for someone to notice Fall and think of a basketball future. One of Fall's best friends had a brother who loved basketball and always carried one with him, dribbling in the streets back and forth to school. As a result, the kid knew a man named Ibrahima N'Diaye, who ran a basketball academy in Senegal and is the brother of former first-round NBA draft pick and then-Georgia Tech assistant coach Mamadou N'Diaye.

N'Diaye approached Fall and his mother and convinced them that moving Fall to the United States to pursue a basketball career and a college degree was a great opportunity. Fall's father had moved to the United States several years prior. So worst case, he had someone he could count on.

That's when the trouble started.

FALL AND ANGE BADJI, another basketball player from Senegal who came to the United States with Fall, were supposed to go to Christian Life Academy in Texas. Because of questions about the school's stability, Fall and Badji looked elsewhere.

Then, their visas were terminated. I-20 visas have one specific school listed on them. Once Fall and Badji didn't go to that school, they were technically in the United States illegally, and no high schools would accept them.

They went to six different states in an eight-month span, hoping to find a school: Texas, Illinois, Kansas, Georgia, Tennessee, even a month with Fall's dad in Ohio. Nothing was working, and the threat of having to leave the country was real.

"I was worried," Fall said. "I didn't know how things worked. I had to make it work somehow because back home, it was tough [financially] for my mom. Going back there wouldn't have been a good idea."

Fall and Badji ended up at Liberty Christian Preparatory School in Tavares, Florida, in fall 2013. Wettstein's mother-in-law was a guidance counselor at the school. Soon, Wettstein and her husband, Davis, agreed to take them in and helped resolve the residency issue.

"It wasn't anything about basketball, it was about a Christian mission," Wettstein said. "These guys are going to be sent out of the country, somebody has got to take them."

Finally with some stability, Fall began to play catch-up with the rest of his high school class. He mastered English fluently within eight months and took advanced math and science classes. Fall took the SAT after three months and scored in the 95th percentile nationally.

"He killed it," Wettstein said.

Although Fall hadn't played basketball in Africa, he knew the main reason N'Diaye brought him to the United States was to get him involved in the sport. But it took time. Liberty Christian isn't exactly a hotbed for basketball players. There are only 300 students from preschool through 12th grade.

Word started to spread about a 7-foot-4 player who just arrived in the Orlando area, and a couple of local college coaches went to check him out.

"I went to see him in November or December of his junior year," said Tim Thomas, then an assistant coach at UCF. "You're really taken back by his size. But watching him play, he had trouble getting up and down the floor."

Wettstein knew Fall would have to play AAU ball, specifically on the Nike EYBL circuit, in order to get enough recruiting exposure. She began tweeting at coaches from AAU programs in Florida hoping to get a tryout -- and eventually Each 1 Teach 1 reached out. Affiliated with Amare Stoudemire and based in Orlando, it was a perfect fit for Fall.

The 2014 E1T1 team featured the likes of? Ben Simmons?and Antonio Blakeney, and every game during EYBL sessions in Sacramento and Dallas had dozens of college coaches in attendance.

"When I got there, I didn't understand this whole college thing, because Americans are crazy about college sports, and I didn't really get it," Fall said. "Until I started playing AAU. We had Ben, Antonio, highly recruited players. That's when I started understanding college was a serious thing."

La Salle and UTEP were the first two schools to really get involved with Fall, but the recruiting was going fairly slowly. Fall was also struggling to adapt to the speed of the game, especially the up-and-down nature of AAU basketball. That spring, he averaged 3.5 points, 2.3 rebounds and 0.5 blocks in just 6.3 minutes per game.

Then came the somewhat surprising invite to the NBPA Top 100 Camp, filled with most of the top 100 high school prospects in the country.

Fall called Wettstein midway through the camp. He was unhappy.

"I'm not sure I belong here," Fall told Wettstein.

Wettstein calmed him down, telling him he earned his invite just like every other player playing at the camp that week.

"Go show what you can do," Wettstein told Fall.

In the hours and days that followed, Wettstein's phone suddenly started buzzing. The first notice was about the University of Florida; the Gators were beginning to show interest in Fall. The phone buzzed again. More alerts, more colleges.

Fall ended up making the all-camp team, as chosen by the players.

"I started to cry," Wettstein told ESPN recently. "We knew he was going to be OK. We knew that it was going to happen for him."

Over the course of one week, it became clear that Fall belonged. The 7-foot-6 basketball newcomer had a future.

"Things really got crazy after that," Fall said.

Fall shot 79.2 percent from the field at the camp, was dominant on the glass and emerged as one of the most intriguing players of the week. YouTube videos came out seemingly every day highlighting his performance.

Despite an underwhelming Peach Jam that summer with E1T1, his recruitment had already ratcheted up. Thomas, the former UCF coach, went back to watch Fall work out shortly after the summer ended and was shocked at the rapid improvement. He recalls a September workout when Liberty Christian was doing ladder-and-cone drills for quickness and agility.

"I'm like, 'Oh my gosh,'" Thomas said. "This kid has good hands, and now I'm seeing footwork. This kid's got a chance. That's when I first thought it."

Fall ended up with 36 scholarship offers from schools, but his recruitment essentially came down to UCF, Georgia Tech and Georgetown. UCF was the local school, while Georgia Tech had Ndiaye, who helped facilitate Fall moving to the United States, and Georgetown was selling Fall on being the next in a long line of Hoyas big men, including Dikembe Mutombo lobbying on their behalf.

The in-state option won out: Fall was going to UCF.

"Loyalty means a lot to Tacko," Wettstein said. "They were one of the first ones in. Because of location, they could spend a lot of time together. He grew very close to [then-UCF head coach] Donnie Jones. He was one of the only coaches who would look him in his face and say I can only offer you a free education. There were no bells and whistles and promises."

After leaving his family in Africa for the United States and then moving around so many times in the span of a year, things were settling down for Fall. He finished his senior season ranked as a four-star prospect at ESPN, just outside the top 100.

Then came more bumps on the road.

FIRST, THE NCAA?wouldn't clear Fall to play. They informed UCF shortly before the 2015-16 season began that they were only accepting some of Fall's core courses from Liberty Christian, which the NCAA placed under an extended evaluation status, and he wouldn't be able to practice with the Knights.

"I didn't really understand why," said Fall, a computer science major at UCF. "I came here the legal way, even though I had problems. It wasn't really my fault. The people that brought me here, I guess they didn't know what they were doing. I had good grades, my English wasn't bad. I did a whole summer of college and passed all my classes, had a good GPA. I didn't really understand it."

Wettstein was more direct in her reaction.

"I lost it," she said. "This was a kid who did everything right, did what he was told. The NCAA absolutely had it wrong."

Wettstein, a public relations professional at her day job, knew she needed to raise awareness. Suddenly, a #FreeTacko movement broke out on social media, with several of the biggest media names in the sport talking about Fall's situation.

Four days later, the NCAA granted Fall an academic waiver and allowed him to play in UCF's season opener.

"That day, they were leaving for Davidson, I was actually on my way to class," Fall recalled. "I got a phone call from coach: 'Turn around, we're going.' 'Why are we going?' 'You're playing tomorrow.'"

Fall started that game against Davidson, finishing with four points, three rebounds and two blocks in 14 minutes.

He had an up-and-down freshman season, showing flashes early on with 23 points and 11 rebounds against Stetson and then finishing with two double-doubles in his final four games. Things were looking up for Fall heading into his second season at UCF.

Hours after the Knights' season ended in the American Athletic Conference Tournament against Tulane, coach Jones was fired.

Fall was devastated. He had had so much uncertainty and change over the past two years, and now the people that welcomed him to UCF were gone too. Many players in Fall's situation would have transferred or at least explored options elsewhere. But it didn't take long for Fall to decide to stay.

"I did a lot of thinking after coach got fired, I really did," Fall said. "But I like the school. I love UCF ... I wanted to stay here. I have a host family 45 minutes away from here. It feels like almost a second home. Going another place would just be insane."

FORMER STANFORD COACH JOHNNY DAWKINS?was hired at UCF, and immediately Dawkins and his staff hatched a plan to help Fall develop during the offseason. In the NBA, Dawkins had played with 7-foot-7 Manute Bol and 7-foot-6 Shawn Bradley and played against Shaquille O'Neal, so he had some familiarity with people Fall's size.

Conditioning came first. Alex Parr, UCF's strength-and-conditioning director, designed a program for Fall to get in better shape so he could stay on the court for longer periods of time. They redistributed his weight through workouts, taught him to stay out of foul trouble and worked on his back-to-the-basket game.

Because Fall has a standing reach of 10-foot-5, one unique aspect of Fall's workouts is UCF coaches consistently trying to get him to do everything at the backboard box above the rim -- grabbing rebounds at the top of the box, quick jumps to the top of the box.

"We had a good plan for Tacko, to help him to continue to improve in a lot of different areas," Dawkins said. "The only way that happened was if Tacko bought into it. That made me most proud. He really accepted what we had to do to get better. He never wavered. Tacko was willing to pay the price."

Fall continued to work and develop in the summer and even spent time with Justin Zormelo, an analytics expert who trained Kevin Durant and also worked with first-round NBA draft pick? Thon Maker.?

"He's the most dominant player in college basketball, point blank, period," UCF assistant coach Jamill Jones said. "Whoever the best center is, if you put him in front of Tacko, he won't be the best center. If they had to play against one another, they can't physically stop Tacko from doing what he wants to do right now."

Fall is still developing his offensive game, but he's running the floor better and has yet to foul out of a game this season. NBA scouts are beginning to take notice, with several teams already stopping at UCF games to catch a glimpse of Fall. He even broke a portion of the basket standard with a thunderous dunk in Saturday's win over Houston at?CFE Arena.

"He brings the ability to rebound and block shots to the NBA," one Western Conference executive said. "His presence is without question good enough to play in the league. He's getting to the point where he has a go-to move, he can catch the ball and score in the post. The next thing is he's a better passer than people give him credit for. You can run offense through him. He's got the ability to be a better version of Roy Hibbert. Tacko's upside is through the roof."

Fall has noticed the increased attention, but he's trying to avoid distractions and focus on his sophomore season.

"It's great, but I can't rush anything. I need to be patient," Fall said. "I'm very excited about it, playing at that level. In basketball, the more you play, that fire that grows inside of you, you want to play at the highest level. That fire just keeps growing in me."