NORMAN — Amath M'Baye speaks three languages. His English is good, but a few words remain foreign.
When M'Baye says “talented,” he pronounces it ta-lint-ed.
“Sometimes when the three East Coast guys talk he looks at us like we're crazy,” said Steven Pledger. “We help him, but it's kind of funny.”
It's no laughing matter what the French native could bring to Oklahoma's men's basketball program.
The Wyoming transfer is sitting out this season. He won't be with the Sooners Wednesday night for a road game at Texas, but he might be the most talented player on OU's roster. Or as M'Baye says: “ta-lint-ed.”
“He's a very good player,” said OU coach Lon Kruger. “He brings a lot of versatility. He shoots well from the perimeter. He's good in the mid-range game. He's a good rebounder. He'll block shots. Amath will fit in really well right away.”
Pronounced ah-Mott EM-bye, the 6-foot-9 forward didn't play basketball until he was a teenager. He doesn't have elite shot-blocking skills but in some ways is a scaled down college version of Thunder star Serge Ibaka.
Starting his career late like Ibaka, M'Baye jumped on everyone's radar at the European Championships three years ago when France won the silver medal.
“He's a dynamic player,” said forward Romero Osby. “He's strong and can play inside or on the perimeter. He's a good defender. He's a shot blocker. He'll bring a lot to the table.”
M'Baye has 3-point range, but he can score in the paint. His skill set is similar to Osby's inside-outside game. The differences are Osby weighs 20 pounds more and M'Baye is a better ball handler and more of a perimeter threat.
He's so versatile the Sooners might start M'Baye, Osby and Andrew Fitzgerald next season. M'Baye could play small forward and move inside when Fitzgerald or Osby need a breather or run into foul trouble.
M'Baye also brings an intangible that at times has been missing this season — energy.
“His motor never stops,” Pledger said. “He doesn't know how to stop. He can change speeds when he needs to, but he goes 120 miles per hour. There is no zero. He can jump, shoot, rebound. You ask him to go get a rebound and he'll go get three of them.”
Assistant coach Steve Henson said M'Baye's passion, drive and energy are contagious.
“That's the thing that excites us the most,” Henson said. “When you add he's 6-8 or 6-9, is very athletic and plays that hard, a lot of times that type of energy comes from guys that aren't as big or talented. He has both.”
M'Baye was born in France, lived in Senegal from second to eighth grade, then moved back to France. That's when he started playing basketball at age 15. Within four years, he was one of the country's top prospects.
In the summer of 2008, M'Baye played for the African Adidas nations team and the French Hoops AAU team, averaging around 15 points and six rebounds.
The following year, playing on the Under 20 French national team, two teammates were Portland's Nicholas Batum and the Washington Wizards' Kevin Seraphin.
“That gave me a lot of confidence and taught me a lot,” M'Baye said. “Playing all year long, whether it was it was my club team or the national team helped me catch up with stuff I was lacking before.”
M'Baye came to the United States the following year when Babacar Sy contacted him. From France, Sy was coaching at Stoneridge Prep in Semi Valley, Calif. M'Baye received some college offers, but Wyoming had an edge.
“Many of the players from my prep school were going there,” M'Baye said. “We kind of had a French connection. It was pretty much an easy choice.”
He had to sit out the first 10 games his freshman year due to an NCAA ruling on his amateur status. He averaged 3.5 points and 2.4 rebounds but doubled those stats the final 11 games.
Last season at Wyoming, M'Baye was the Cowboys' leading rebounder (5.7) and second leading scorer (12.0). When Wyoming made a coaching change, he opted to transfer.
Washington and Colorado were on his list. Kansas contacted him. The Sooners ended up with an edge because Kruger's UNLV teams had battled Wyoming twice a year in the Mountain West.
“It's weird. I felt like I knew coach Kruger before I even got to know him,” M'Baye said. “I played him so many times, seeing the way he played, his style was the best fit for me pretty much of any program in the country. I felt it wasn't necessary to take any more visits.”
“I HATE SITTING OUT”
M'Baye, a junior, has two years eligibility remaining. He knew sitting out one season would be difficult. He didn't know how difficult until around the holidays.
The toughest part for M'Baye is watching his teammates on television on the road like he'll do for tonight's game in Austin.
“It's the worst thing ever,” M'Baye said. “I hate it. “I've been working out for seven months. That's enough. I want to play. Game days are terrible.
“Road trips are one of my favorite things about playing basketball. You get away. You get to play in a hostile environment. All that was taken away.”
Henson said M'Baye reminds him of Mike Moser, both as a player and the way he's handled his transfer season.
A UCLA transfer who sat out last season at UNLV, Moser has made an immediate impact on a top 20 team. He's the Runnin' Rebels' leading scorer.
“Some guys can't work hard every day, knowing they're not going to play,” Henson said. “Amath competes hard every day even though some days the scout team might be on the floor 30 straight minutes running our opponents' plays.”
M'Baye said he'll be a little nervous when he makes his OU debut in November. That's still nine months away, but he doesn't view it like he's reached the halfway point of the transfer process.
“I'm going to be excited at the end of March,” M'Baye said. “The next game we play in this arena (after the season is over) I know I'll get to play. I think about it every day. I can't wait.”
In the meantime, M'Baye is learning Kruger's system and building a bond with new teammates.
After Pledger missed a potential game-tying 3-point buzzer beater against Missouri at Lloyd Noble Center, a distraught Pledger collapsed to the floor. M'Baye was the first player to run onto the court to console Pledger.
“It's hard not being able to play,” M'Baye said. “But I'm so confident about this program the next two years. Since I signed here it made me feel even stronger this is the right place for me.”
As for the friendly ribbing from teammates, it's a sign the upbeat M'Baye is fitting in.
“I know they're just playing around with me,” M'Baye said, smiling. “Some words I just can't grasp. I just don't say them right. When that happens I talk back to them in French. I say some bad things in French, but they have no idea what it is.”
OKLAHOMA AT TEXAS
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Erwin Center (Austin)
TV: ESPN2 (Cox channel 28)
Radio: KOKC-AM (1520)
Three things to know
* Texas' junior guard J'Covan Brown leads the conference in scoring (19.5) and is sixth in steals (1.3).
* The Sooners are 2-23 in their last 25 Big 12 road games dating back to Blake Griffin's final road game.
* OU led by eight points late in the first half but lost 69-58 in the first meeting two weeks ago in Norman.
Oklahoma (14-14, 4-12)
Texas (18-11, 8-8)