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‘He’s a guy everybody trusts’: What will be Fousseyni Traore’s role after fantastic freshman campaign?

The 6-foot-6, 240-pounder averaged 9.6 points and 8.5 rebounds per game. Along the way, the guy known as “Fouss” became a fan favorite

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BYU sophomore Fousseyni Traore (No. 45) looks to score during Blue and White game at the Marriott Center in October.

BYU sophomore Fousseyni Traore (No. 45) looks to score during Blue and White Game at the Marriott Center in October. Big things are expected of ‘Fouss’ this season in Provo.

Nate Edwards, BYU Photo

When forward Fousseyni Traore joined BYU’s basketball program a year ago as a true freshman, coach Mark Pope thought he would get some playing time and be able to learn behind veteran big men like Richard Harward and Gavin Baxter.

“Fouss is just a second-year player and he’s still young in the program. But he’s a guy on this team that everybody trusts.” — Mark Pope on Fousseyni Traore

But that plan changed dramatically.

Harward and Baxter were both lost for the season by early December and Traore was suddenly thrust into a major role.

And the native of Bamako, Mali, exceeded expectations.

“I mean, he really saved us in a lot of ways,” Pope said.

The 6-foot-6, 240-pounder averaged 9.6 points and a team-high 8.5 rebounds per game. Along the way, the guy known as “Fouss” became a fan favorite. 

Now a sophomore, BYU will continue to rely on Traore even more. In BYU’s nail-biting, season-opening win over Idaho State Monday, he scored a team-high 15 points and grabbed a team-high 11 rebounds.

“Fouss is just a second-year player and he’s still young in the program,” Pope said. “But he’s a guy on this team that everybody trusts.”

Last season, Traore drew notice from the West Coast Conference. He was named to the 10-member preseason all-conference team. 

“For a big man, he can move really well. He showed his capabilities and ability to be dominant on the glass,” Saint Mary’s forward Kyle Bowen said during WCC media day in October. “He’s definitely a weapon for them and someone on our radar. We’ll be looking out for him.

“ … I’m looking forward to see how much he’s improved. But we’ve got to watch out for him. Hopefully we can mitigate him when we play them.”

On the job training

Traore learned on the job last season and that experience should prove beneficial this season. 

During the offseason, Traore said, he’s been working diligently to improve. “The coaches have been helping me with my post moves and focusing on rebounding,” he said. 

Pope is grateful for Traore’s contributions last season. 

“He was put in a really unfair position. There’s no two ways about it. It’s not fair to expect him to play top-25 basketball against great teams every single night as a freshman. It’s just not fair,” he said. “It wasn’t what we expected. It wasn’t what we planned on. But the way he responded was really special. He’s grown so much.

“There are so many slices of this game that you have to learn as a big. So many different reads and styles and matchups,” he continued. “He’s done an incredible job of growing from the first day till the last. So has Atiki (Ally Atiki), frankly. It’s not an easy road for those guys but it will pay dividends as they move forward in their careers.”

“(Traore) and Atiki both have taken big steps, which is so fun to watch. They’re the best human beings in the world. I love them both,” said guard Spencer Johnson. “It’s really cool to see them get here and see where they started to now say, ‘Holy cow, look at this step that they took.’ You’re gonna have fun watching them this year.”

Because the Cougars are undersized, and with a bevy of skilled outside shooters, they will be spreading the floor more than ever. 

Looking ahead

How does Traore fit into BYU’s plans?

“We’re going to be smaller this year, which is a little bit scary. … We’re more skilled. We’re going to demand that teams guard more space on the floor,” Pope said. “Right now, my biggest issue with Fouss is making sure he’s healthy. He’s actually going to be surrounded by a supporting cast that’s really interesting. It’s going to put more pressure on him on the glass and with his physicality, for sure. It’s going to give him more space to operate offensively.

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BYU’s Fousseyni Traore acknowledges the crowd during pregame introductions at the Blue and White Game at the Marriott Center in Provo.

Nate Edwards, BYU Photo

“He’s an incredibly talented decision-maker and passer out of the post, especially for a young player. He’s going to have more space to work in to do that. We’re trying to grow his skill set in the post, where he can attack in different ways. … Last year he had some bulky fours that were taking away some of the punishing part of the game. It’s going to be different for him this year.”

Reunited

Freshman guard Richie Saunders, who recently returned home from a mission, was Traore’s teammate and friend at Wasatch Academy. 

Now, they’re back together. 

“Fouss is my little brother. As much as he says he’s not the younger brother anymore, he lived with my family,” Saunders said. “He’s improved in ways that I didn’t ever think he would. His hands are so much better. His ability to finish and not just go right, but to get skilled, he’s improved immensely.

“It’s so cool to see and it makes me so happy because I know how hard he’s worked and how hard it’s been for him to come to this situation. I love to see my little brother rise. It means a lot to me.”

Earlier this year, Saunders and Traore traveled to Mali, where Traore has established a nonprofit organization. 

“We’re building a one-of-a-kind sports complex in Mali,” Saunders said. “We met with the minister of sports, education and land. We asked for five acres of land to make this happen. It was a very successful trip. We were so blessed to get those meetings and have support from the government. We’re super excited for the potential for this project.”

They’ve raised $700,000 out of $1.5 million to build the complex. 

“The first time I went to Mali, my gratitude increased like crazy. They’re without shoes, playing. They don’t have all the resources that we are fortunate enough to have here,” Saunders said. “To see the potential of this, where they could actually have resources means so much to me. I love that country so much. I’m so excited for it.”

For BYU, there’s a lot to be excited about when it comes to Traore’s potential, too. 

After going through some growing pains, and showing flashes of brilliance, as a freshman, Traore is ready to take another jump forward. 

“We were super excited about Fouss coming in as a freshman. But I would have wished for him not to have to do that last year. But he did,” Pope said. “He stepped up and grew so much. I’m really grateful this year that he had to do that last year.”

As he heads into his second season in Provo, Traore doesn’t want the focus to be on himself. 

“I’m super excited,” he said. “It’s not about me, it’s about the team. We need everybody. … Your team can look better and you can help your team look better.”

Traore certainly helped the Cougars look better last season — and he’s looking to do the same thing this year.

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BYU forward Traore Fousseyni and Northern Iowa Panthers guard Tywhon Pickford fight for a ball in an NIT game at the Marriott Center in Provo on Saturday, March 19, 2022.

Mengshin Lin, Deseret News