Baye Moussa Keita thrust his right index finger toward the rim.
Keita had just set a screen for Michael Carter-Williams and was now barreling toward the hoop, giving his point guard the necessary emphasis of where he wanted the pass. With a quick two-handed lob, Carter-Williams found Keita, who did as graceful a pirouette as his 6-foot-10, 215-pound frame would allow to corral the ball.
What happened next was a recurring theme on the afternoon: Keita slammed down an easy two points.
Though the basket was insignificant as it related to the game itself—Syracuse would crush Wagner 88-57 on Sunday afternoon—it spoke volumes about Keita’s progression since he arrived on The Hill. He finished with a career-high 15 points, all in the second half, and added five rebounds and a pair of blocks in an efficient 13 minutes.
“He works hard every day and he improves his game,” Carter-Williams said. “He’s improved on catching the ball and he’s improved in finishing. I have as much trust in him as I have in any big man that I’ve ever played with.”
That’s a huge statement considering where Keita was last year.
While the junior has always been known as a rugged interior defender, it frequently seemed as if Orange was playing 4-on-5 on offense with Keita in the game last season. Keita was never particularly adept at catching lobs, and that was made worse by a left hand injury suffered early last year that left Keita wearing a wrist brace.
That led to a regression from his freshman to sophomore season. Keita’s minutes (14.6 to 12.3) and rebounds (3.7 to 2.5) both dropped.
But Keita is healthy now, and has a wealth of experience to draw from.
When a ball comes his way, he’s prepared.
“Everything is experience. I’ve been playing for three years now. I kind of have an idea of where the ball goes, and where I have to be,” Keita said. “I’m a lot more patient compared to my freshman year (and) last year. Now, when I get the ball, I know exactly what to do.”
While his offensive improvement has been the most dramatic, Keita has also steadily improved the strongest areas of his game: Defense and rebounding.
“He probably plays the best defense of big men we have in terms of the zone,” Carter-Williams said. “He’s always in the right spot.”
And, though it’s a small sample size, Keita is averaging 6.5 rebounds a game through two games.
Keita attributes his improvement to Orange assistant coach Mike Hopkins.
“Coach Hopkins is telling us all of the time, ’75 percent of the time, if the ball misses, the ball is going to go to the opposite side,'” Keita said. “That’s what I’m trying to use every time.”
So far, the results have been impressive.
“Baye started slow, but then he got active and when he’s very active, he’s extremely good,” Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim said. “I think he’s getting better, he’s working harder in practice and he’s showing that he wants to play harder and better.”
Corey Mallonee contributed to this story.Wesley Cheng