Kadi Sissoko started opening some eyes not quite a year ago. Her left knee finally healthy, her college career still on hold as she sat out a transfer year, she began practicing with the Gophers women’s basketball team late last season.
And nobody could guard her.
“Oh, man, last year on scout team,” coach Lindsay Whalen said, remembering. Sissoko, a native of France who came to the Gophers via Syracuse, is 6-2. Long, lean, quick. Able to play, probably, four offensive positions. At times capable of guarding all five. As the Gophers prepared for a Big Ten Conference opponent, Sissoko would play on the scout team, usually taking the role of the other team’s best player.
Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve attended one of those practices and came away impressed with Sissoko, how she stood out. Whalen and her staff saw it, too.
“We couldn’t stop her,” Whalen said. “We could never stop her.”
And now, finally, others will be able to see it, too. Sissoko is perhaps the biggest unknown among Whalen’s retooled team, which will open the season with a nonconference game against Eastern Illinois on Wednesday at Williams Arena. She was ranked the 10th-best national recruit — and No. 2 guard — by ESPN when she chose Syracuse, having grown her game playing for France’s junior national team.
But that was a while ago.
As a freshman at Syracuse in the fall of 2018, she injured her left knee in an early-season tournament. After surgery she tried to return, but ultimately couldn’t play, ending her year. Since then: Her decision to transfer to Minnesota, another surgery in France, the decision to not apply for a transfer waiver to let her knee heal, a year on the Gophers bench watching a difficult 16-15 season.
Today's Gophers game will be played without fans at Williams Arena. It is available on the web through the BTN+ subscription service.
And now, finally, after nearly two years, Sissoko will get to play in a competitive basketball game, again.
“It’s been really hard,” Sissoko said. “Because I’m obsessed about basketball. I really like to play. It was really hard to see my teammates getting ready to go to games and all that. I just had to learn to be patient. Work hard. But now I’m feeling good. I’m excited to play. I am really excited to play.”
Part of a revamped roster
This Gophers team, when 100% healthy — something it won’t be in the first two nonconference games — will look much different from the one that limped home last season in the wake of Destiny Pitts’ suspension and subsequent decision to leave the team and transfer.
There is a good chance that, once the conference season starts Dec. 9 against Michigan State, the Gophers will have only two players from last season’s starting five in the starting lineup: guards Jasmine Powell and Sara Scalia.
Graduate transfer Laura Bagwell Katalinich could start at one forward position. If Kayla Mershon, who played at Nebraska last season, gets a transfer waiver, she could start at center.
And then there is Sissoko.
She and Powell are probably the two best athletes on the team. At 6-2, Sissoko’s height and lean frame stand out. She is the kind of versatile player who fits the prototype of where the women’s game is going. She is skilled, athletic and, perhaps most importantly, versatile.
“She can do some things,” Whalen said. “The running, jumping, get-out-and-go mentality is there.”
She fits right into the high-post offense Whalen plans to use a lot, one reminiscent of the offense Reeve ran with the Lynx before Sylvia Fowles arrived in 2015, with guards and wings cutting to the basket.
Sissoko is a slasher. But she can also create her own shot off the dribble. She will need to work on her perimeter game, but the Gophers have a number of talented players who can make three-pointers.
Sissoko’s ability to defend could also be a game-changer.
“She’s going to be a special player, for sure,” redshirt senior Gadiva Hubbard said. “She can get to the basket. She’s a really good slasher. She finishes through contact. She can finish in a crowd. I remember watching her on scout team last year and thinking, ‘Wow. She’s really good.’ ”
Getting back into the game
But it will take some time. Sissoko has almost two years of rust to knock off. The pandemic has made preparing for the season difficult for everyone, but perhaps more so for Sissoko, who hasn’t had a lot of full-team practices to get ready.
“Imagine being 21 years old and not having played in two years,” Whalen said. “Not to mention, being in a pandemic. I don’t know what I would have done. I don’t know how I would have handled it.”
Sissoko? She said she couldn’t have done it without help.
“Good teammates,” she said. “And a really good coaching staff around me. My friends, family. All of them helped me through the process. It’s hard, but you have to focus on getting ready, no matter what happened.”
Whalen sees Sissoko’s potential, but knows she might have to wait for her to acclimate back into the game.
“It’s going to take time,” Whalen said. “But I am excited for people to see her.”
Already there are signs. In a full team scrimmage Saturday — the team’s first — Sissoko was, as Whalen said, the best player.
Sissoko said her decision to transfer from Syracuse had a lot to do with a desire for a different environment. She chose Minnesota in large part because of the staff. She wanted to learn from Whalen.
“Also, I wanted to get better as a player,” Sissoko said. “That’s something that I couldn’t find at Syracuse.”
And it kind of fits, considering Sissoko’s favorite player is former Lynx star Seimone Augustus, who won four WNBA titles with Whalen in Minnesota. That commitment never wavered last season, even during the difficult times the team played through.
And now, finally, she gets to play. Sissoko thinks her best spot is at small forward. But she could move to the four in a smaller lineup. Her versatility — and a deeper roster in general — is a big reason why the Gophers should be able to match up against both smaller, quicker teams and those with bigger, stronger lineups.
“I just want to come back, after two years, and have fun on the court,” Sissoko said. “Be a good leader. I have the ability to have a huge impact on my team.”