Back in his native Senegal, Hamady Ndiaye was always the tallest child in class. His first soccer coach took one look at his gangly, weed-thin frame and promptly declared him a goalie. In volleyball, he was a man of many positions; he instinctively roamed the court, extending his arms and massive hands, and blocking every ball within reach.
Basketball was the unsolvable puzzle, the girl he admired from afar. Even while his body inched toward its current 7-feet, 235 pounds, and former NBA centers Hakeem Olajuwon, Dikembe Mutombo and the late Manute Bol were reigning legends on African playgrounds, Ndiaye was an interested, almost intimidated observer, rarely a participant.
"I would sit and watch the kids play during recess, and they would say, 'What are you so tall for?' " related Ndiaye (pronounced enj-eye), an invitee to Kings training camp. "People would make fun of me. I was geeky, skinny. I studied and worried about graduating. One day when I was 16 – and I remember the day precisely – they challenged me to dunk the ball. And I couldn't do it. I couldn't jump, and there was no way I could touch the rim."
But here's a hint of Ndiaye's stubborn streak and his abundant charm: He didn't get angry. He didn't throw punches or elbows. With the help of a local coach, he began taking awkward, elongated, persistent strides. One dribble, two dribbles, three dribbles. He caught passes that were thrown at him for hours. He learned to jump off his left foot and dunk with his right hand. He essentially enrolled in a basketball cram course, and when approached two weeks later by the same kids at the same court, he demanded the ball.
"I walked right out there and dunked for the first time," Ndiaye recalled, smiling, "and that kind of got me started."
His belated introduction to the game has forced him to play catch-up throughout a still-evolving career. An appearance at the NBA's Basketball Without Borders program in South Africa led to a scholarship at a prep school in Simi Valley and, two years later, to an athletic scholarship at Rutgers.
Ndiaye, who chose Rutgers for its combination of mid-major competition and academic standards, remains a bit of a bookworm. Besides being fluent in French, Arabic and his native Senegalese dialect (Wolof), he owns Rosetta Stone materials in beginners' Italian.
The intellectual cravings, he said, are attributable to a father who is an economist and a mother who worked as a businesswoman before becoming a seamstress.
"My mom used to make my suits, and actually, she still does," Ndiaye admits with a grin. "She still sends me boxes of stuff to wear."
With his lean, wiry physique and a gap between his two front teeth that appears to widen when he smiles, Ndiaye bears a striking resemblance to Mutombo, one of the league's all-time shot blockers and one of its foremost humanitarians.
"I'll be walking into a store, a Walmart, and someone will yell 'Dikembe!' " related Ndiaye, laughing. "I'll say, 'no, no. He's too old. He could be my father, maybe.' But it's an honor to hear that because he does so much for Africa."
Similar to the taller, more instinctive Mutombo, length and shot blocking are Ndiaye's most promising assets. But Mutombo made a straight shot from the Congo to Georgetown to the NBA. Ndiaye, who was drafted in the second round by Minnesota in 2010, has taken a circuitous route to Sacramento. He has shuttled between NBA camps in Washington and Minnesota, the NBA Development League, a professional team in China, and a second consecutive training camp in Sacramento.
His chances of making the Opening Day roster will be determined primarily by two factors – the team's dearth of frontcourt length and shot blocking and whether general manager Pete D'Alessandro and coach Michael Malone believe Ndiaye's potential warrants an investment despite his age (26) and limited offensive skills.
"Right now we're ranked (27th) in the league in shot blocking," Malone noted, "so he gives us a dynamic we don't have. But he has to get stronger. He's got to be able to rebound his position, got to be able to defend his position. You have to able to guard your guy in the low post. The other thing is, the more he plays, the more comfortable he'll get."
Without offering any guarantees, Malone is pulling hard for the player he calls "H." And for an organization in the midst of a major public relations makeover, Ndiaye's delightful presence alone enhances his odds. An expansive conversationalist both inside and outside the locker room, he is visibly happy just to be here. He also knows how to work and knows who he is.
His hands were terrible in high school, he says, and his instincts aren't natural because he took up the game so late.
"Guys here are almost born with a basketball," he said. "I have a long way to go, a lot of catching up to do. I don't even know what my potential is. But I just keep getting better, and I enjoy every day. What else can you ask?"
HAMADY NDIAYE AT A GLANCE
NBA experience: Two seasons with the Washington Wizards.
NBA CAREER STATS
Minutes ppg: 4.4
Points ppg: 0.7
Rebounds ppg: 0.4
Blocks ppg: 4.3
FG pct.: .667
Call The Bee's Ailene Voisin at (916) 321-1208 and follow her on Twitter @ailene_voisin.