We’re a week into the early signing period in college basketball and just under a week into the 2022 season. If you thought that meant the Iowa Hawkeyes were done with their recruiting class of 2023, you were wrong.
On Wednesday, just a few hours before the Hawkeyes square off against Seton Hall in the Gavitt Games, Fran McCaffery and staff made some big waves as they dipped into New Jersey to land a fourth commitment in the class of 2023 as 4-star PF Ladji Dembele announced his commitment to the Hawkeyes.
Dembele is a big time get at this stage in the process for McCaffery. At 6’9” and 230 pounds, the Jersey big man has prototypical size for a McCaffery stretch big. That’s the same build as current starting center Filip Rebraca.
Dembele’s game, however, is perhaps a more complete version of Rebraca at the same stage of development. He does all the things Hawkeyes fans are beginning to truly appreciate of Rebraca - he can be a garbage man around the hoop and is a capable shot-blocker, if not a high flyer. He has a nice back-to-the-basket game with a handful of go-to moves, as well as 1-2 counter moves when stopped initially.
But what makes the Newark St. Benedict’s big really intriguing is his face up game. Dembele shows an ability to face up off the block and hit a standing jumper or pivot into a fadeaway. He also shows range out to the three point line when left uncontested. That was something we had seen advertised on Rebraca at South Dakota but have really not seen him exhibit in Iowa City.
Congratulations to our Captain , Class of 2023 Forward @ladji_kalilou on his commitment to the University of Iowa @iowahoops #gohawks #graybees pic.twitter.com/M5yFhySXFT— St. Benedict’s Prep Basketball (@GraybeeHoops) November 16, 2022
Dembele’s prep coach, Mark Taylor, spoke with Adam Zagoria of Rivals and described him as a talented, but developing big man with multiple strengths.
Laj is a terrific player, strong, athletic and versatile. He’s 6-9 and can post up and finish strong and extend the defense with the 3 ball. And he can defend multiple positions. He is going to be great in college and has a chance beyond that.
It’s not uncommon for big men to still be developing as high school players and as we’ve seen with Josh Ogundele and Riley Mulvey, they often take years into the college careers to continue their development. But in the case of Dembele, that process has just begun as the 19 year old has only been in the US for two years.
Originally from Mali in western Africa, Dembele moved to Spain at the age of 13 to pursue a dream of playing college basketball. That journey sent him to New Jersey and St. Benedict’s the last two years.
As a junior, Dembele averaged 16 points, 12 rebounds, 1.5 steals, 1.3 blocks and 1.1 assists while shooting 52% from the field and 36% from beyond the arc. The performance helped St. Benedict’s win a State Prep A championship with a 25-1 record that pushed them to a #6 ranking nationally per MaxPreps.
Dembele is also a member of the Mali national team. He played on the under-19 team in the 2021 World Cup, scoring 17 points in a win over Puerto Rico.
While he only committed Wednesday, Dembele is officially a Hawkeye as he committed during the early signing period and signed his letter of intent to play for Iowa on Wednesday.
Say hello to the newest Hawkeye...— Iowa Men’s Basketball (@IowaHoops) November 17, 2022
✍️ @ladji_kalilou x #Hawkeyes pic.twitter.com/scSCqyRJAh
That allowed head coach Fran McCaffery to comment on his game in a way we rarely get to see for new commits. In a press release on the signing, McCaffery was positive in his evaluation of Dembele’s game, noting he has several different tools.
Ladji is a terrific young man. He visited Iowa City a few weeks ago and really fell in love with the University of Iowa. We love his game. He has skill. He can shoot. He can run. He’s bouncy. He’s physical. I believe he is a great fit with the other three players that we have in this class. St. Benedict’s is a great preparation for the college game.
Dembele chose the Hawkeyes over offers from Seton Hall, Xavier, Pitt, DePaul, Rutgers and Wake Forest, ultimately trimming his list down to Iowa, Rutgers and Wake Forest in the final weeks.
As for why Iowa, Dembele said he has spent several years following Iowa and their use of big men and really liked the way Fran McCaffery sees him in his system.
Again speaking with Adam Zagoria:
I started watching college basketball and I started watching Iowa most of the time because of the way that they used their bigs. And last year I used to watch Keegan Murray, the way that he plays, so I really like their style. So when I went there I had a chance to talk to the coach and he came here to see me. That was basically why I chose Iowa. We had a chance to watch some tape of Luka Garza, Keegan Murray and Kris Murray. He said he sees me as one of those guys because likely Kris Murray is going to get drafted this year, so he sees me as one of those guys because I can stretch the floor, I can shoot, I can defend, so that was pretty much what he told me.
Dembele is the fourth player to sign with the Hawkeyes in the class of 2023. He joins fellow big man Owen Freeman, as well as forward Pryce Sandfort and point guard Brock Harding. The Hawkeyes are not expected to add any additional members to the class, though with Kris Murray expected to once again test the NBA Draft waters and the likelihood of at least one transfer out of the program (the aforementioned Ogundele entered the portal before returning last offseason), McCaffery is expected to look to add a veteran post player to replace the graduating Filip Rebraca this spring.
Welcome aboard, officially, Ladji Dembele!
Ladji Dembele, PF
Wt: 230 lbs
Hometown: Newark, NJ (St. Benedict’s)
Star Ranking: Rivals - 4; 247 Sports - 3
2023 Ladji Dembele |@ladji_kalilou| of NY Rens @NYRhoops + St Benedict’s @GraybeeHoops is one of the more undervalued bigs in the country.— Endless Motor Sports (@endless_motor) July 12, 2022
Floorspacing big with solid footwork/pivoting in the paint, soft touch as a finisher and a nice jumphook over the left shoulder. pic.twitter.com/WaohaUNUEh