If Dr. James Naismith had known that the sport he created would one day be dominated by Tacko Fall, he probably would have nailed his peach basket a bit higher than 10 feet.
The University of Central Florida center is listed at 7-foot-6, although Tacko and those around him will tell you that the senior has grown an inch taller. That makes him the tallest basketball player in college or the NBA. And it means Fall can dunk without his feet leaving the floor and play keep-away with the ball by merely raising his arms above his head. On defense, he’s at most a half-step away from the action, capable of plucking rebounds off the glass or stopping layup attempts by sending the ball crashing into spectators.
“He is one of the most talented kids I’ve ever seen,” said Justin Zormelo, a personal trainer who specializes in analytics and has trained Fall in recent years. “He can do things on the basketball court that have never been done before.”
Anecdotal evidence aside, Fall is in the final stretch of one of the most dominant and efficient careers in the history of college basketball.
For a guy who has been playing basketball half as long as many of his peers, Fall picked up the sport pretty quickly. Seven years ago, Fall, then 16, left his family in Senegal to move to the U.S. “Basketball and school, that was the plan,” said Fall, who had effectively never played the sport before his arrival. “I honestly can’t imagine doing that,” UCF head coach Johnny Dawkins said.
By Fall’s senior year of high school, colleges from around the country had come calling. Even though he had received scholarship offers from established programs like Georgetown and Tennessee, Fall chose UCF, a relatively green program. (It has had four all-time appearances in the NCAA tournament, none of which went past the opening round.)
Four years later, Fall has arguably led the Knights to three of the five best seasons in the program’s history.1 This year will likely culminate in the program’s first NCAA tournament appearance in 14 years. “I think he wanted to come here and leave this legacy,” Dawkins said. “He chose a place where he could really impact what was going on. He made that commitment. And look where he’s taken the program.”
Few if any have scored with more efficiency at the college level. “You’ve got to feature him as much as you possibly can,” Dawkins said, laughing. “And we do that.”
Although he has never been UCF’s leading scorer over a full season, Fall has made just under three-quarters of his career field-goal attempts. Oregon State’s Steve Johnson set the all-time career mark (67.8 percent) in the early 1980s, which means that Fall could shatter that record by more than 6 percentage points.
|Player||Team||Height||Final Season||total Games||career FG%|
|Steve Johnson||Oregon State||6’10”||1980-81||116||67.8|
|Murray Brown||Florida State||6’8″||1979-80||106||66.8|
|Lee Campbell||Middle Tenn./Missouri St.||6’7″||1989-90||88||66.5|
|Warren Kidd||Middle Tenn.||6’9″||1992-93||83||66.4|
|Joe Senser||West Chester||6’5″||1978-79||96||66.2|
|Kevin Magee||UC Irvine||6’8″||1981-82||56||65.6|
Synergy Sports Technology started tracking points per possession in the 2005-06 season. As of Tuesday, there were about 23,000 Division I player-seasons that accounted for at least 150 offensive possessions from 2005-06 through 2018-19. Of those, Fall’s four seasons at UCF ranked third, ninth, 23rd and 27th in adjusted field-goal percentages.
Although Zormelo said Fall’s jump shot is much improved, Fall hasn’t been asked to use it much in college. In fact, Fall has taken a whopping 11 total jump shots over his career, according to data from Synergy. “You always have to know where your bread is buttered,” Dawkins said. “And for him, his bread is buttered in the paint.”
UCF has the tallest front court in the nation, pairing Fall with 6-foot-11 Collin Smith. “On defense, he’s a monster,” said Smith, who admitted that he is rarely concerned if an opponent sprints past him toward the rim. “Just knowing that I have that 7-foot monster behind me is just amazing. I know he’s going to clean it up.”
Counting stats, especially on the defensive end, often fail to showcase Fall’s value. For example, despite having a huge impact on what happens in the paint, Fall has never ranked in the top five in blocks per game. But he has won an American Athletic Conference defensive player of the year award. As Houston head coach Kelvin Sampson told The Associated Press, Fall “takes away half of your playbook.”
And Fall’s presence on the court clearly makes his team better on both ends of the floor. His on-off court splits are jarring. According to Hoop Lens, UCF’s defense improves in nearly every facet when he’s playing. On offense, his team’s effective field-goal percentage is nearly 8 percentage points higher when Fall is manning the paint.
|Without||With||Tacko diff.||Without||With||Tacko diff.|
|Points per poss.||1.00||1.08||+0.08||0.97||0.89||-0.08|
|Off. reb %||27.0||33.1||+6.1||28.1||28.4||+0.3|
In the two seasons before Fall’s arrival, UCF ranked outside the top 220 teams in Division I in points allowed per possession, according to data provided by Synergy Sports.3 The team made up substantial ground in Fall’s freshman year, and over the past three seasons, UCF has ranked in the top 10. The Knights held opponents to 36.5 percent shooting from the field in 2016-17, tying the 10th best mark nationally in field-goal percentage defense since 1978. This year would be the third consecutive season that the Knights ranked in the top 15 in effective field-goal percentage defense.
Individually, Fall has allowed 44 total points on 79 possessions against post-ups over his career. In isolation, he has allowed 25 points on 34 career possessions. Fall’s lateral quickness has also improved considerably, his coaches say, as has his ability to diagnose and thwart offensive schemes. “He’s guarding different actions that teams are throwing at him,” Dawkins said. “I can see his response time has gotten faster. He’s recognizing what’s going on at that end of the floor a lot quicker as well.”
There’s no shortage of reservations hanging over Fall as he heads toward the upcoming NBA draft. The age of the slow-footed big man is over and, increasingly, the league seems to have less room for guys who can’t get it done at the free-throw line. Fall is 23, and there’s a short shelf life for players who stand at least 7-foot-3: Only 25 have logged action in league history, and fewer than half played more than five seasons. Can someone lacking above-average end-to-end quickness and stamina flourish — or even function — in today’s NBA? And how honed is Fall’s jump shot, which hasn’t really been tested outside the paint? Is his skill set more Yao Ming or Hasheem Thabeet?
“I mean, there’s not a lot of guys like me,” Fall correctly noted.
Zormelo believes in his player, though. “The guy can move a ball wherever he wants. Everything he does is crazy.”
For the short term, UCF is enjoying its first appearance in The Associated Press poll in eight years and is coming off a weekend win over then-No. 8 Houston, snapping the Cougars’ 33-game home win streak, which had been the longest run in the country. On senior night Thursday, the Knights host No. 20 Cincinnati in the first top-25 home matchup in program history, with a chance to beat their second ranked opponent for the first time in a single season.
The Knights are hoping for a sellout for Fall’s final game at CFE Arena. But he’s most concerned about one fan who will be there: his mother, who has never seen her son play in person.
Seven years after he said goodbye to his old life, Fall entered an airport a few days ago and paced around the baggage claim. “All of a sudden, I see her head and we started running,” he said.
Onlookers saw a woman sobbing. Fall saw his mother.
“I have thought (about that moment) every day since I’ve been here,” Fall said. “I felt like I was dreaming. It was incredible.”