'It's made me tougher': Breakers pair Dieng, Besson hoping rollercoaster NBL season is NBA launchpad

Ousmane Dieng battled through some early struggles in NBL22, yet his draft stock never plummeted.

Up close, it's easy to see why. Still just 18 years old, Dieng fits the textbook prospect physical profile; 6'10" and likely still growing, long limbs, a graceful mover on the floor with an ability to handle the ball and defend across multiple positions.

All of those attributes came to the forefront in a dominant first period against the Cairns Taipans on Monday night, with a 13-point quarter producing his hottest stretch of the season.

"I think my first half was my best, but I think I can do better in the second half with five fouls and four turnovers," the New Zealand Breaker told ESPN, keeping his performance well and truly in check.

It wasn't just the raw point total, but the way he scored. Transition buckets from causing deflections on the defensive end, finishing around the basket, calmly knocking down a triple - it was the full arsenal, while appearing in complete control.

"I'm here to help the team as best I can, whether it's making good reads, scoring when I can score and passing when I can pass," he said.

The game marked the seventh time in the last nine that he has scored in double-digits, a mark that he failed to reach across his first 11 appearances in what was a particularly frigid start to his NBL campaign, with just 28 points coming on his first 54 shots.

"I never lost confidence," Dieng said. "I know my shot will fall during the season, so I wasn't worried about that. I just kept working every day and I knew it would come. It started in practice. I started feeling better, playing better and then it translated to games."

Admitting that the pressure of performing under the scrutiny of NBA teams on a nightly basis is real, Dieng smiles as he describes embracing the spotlight while being a long way from his France home.

Outside of the player moving to a foreign country as a teenager, his team has also endured a season-long road trip due to border restrictions, leaving the team to live in a Melbourne long-stay apartment building, while home games have been spread across the entire country.

"It's been really weird. Every game is away and even home games are away which is very weird," Dieng said. "I didn't expect it to be like this, but I think it's a great experience. It's made me tougher I think."

Helping him along the way has been fellow draft prospect Hugo Besson, who became the second French player to sign with the team prior to the NBL season.

"We have a really good relationship on and off the court. We aren't fighting to be the one before the other. I think we have the right mentality with each other, and it's been helpful for both of us," Besson told ESPN.

"It's really helpful arriving in a foreign country, knowing no one and not really speaking that language, it's helpful to have a guy coming from the same country. We're just helping each other on and off the court."

While the younger Dieng took some time to adjust, Besson immediately announced himself as a fearless scorer by pouring in 26 points against the South East Melbourne Phoenix in the second game of the season. The 20-year-old was unconscious in the second-half, scoring the last 14 points of the game for the Breakers, who fell just short of an upset win.

The scorching fourth quarter came days after recovering from a bout of COVID that saw him lose seven kilos in a week, and just minutes after head coach Dan Shamir hooked the young guard for a bad defensive breakdown during the third quarter.

"It's not easy when the coach is yelling at you," Besson recalls of the night, which can happen frequently while playing under the passionate Shamir. "I'm not getting mad when that happens, I just try to stay focused. I'm just moving forward.

"He's a tough coach, he wants a lot from us. That's good to become a better player, having a coach who is always pushing behind you to get yourself better."

Rather than dwell on the moment, Besson went on a scoring binge that has become a semi-regular appearance in a season where the young star has had to carry the offence at times.

"I've always been like that, even when I was younger. I take basketball as a game, I'm not overthinking," he says of his ability to block out distractions or poor performances. "If I'm missing shots, it's just basketball, I'm not asking myself too many questions, I'm just playing the way I know."

Right on the fringe of the first and second round in projections for this year's NBA draft, Besson originally planned on entering last year, before an ankle injury caused a change of plans.

"I was completely ok with that. S--- happens," he said. "Maybe that was not the right moment. I think I really needed this year to keep improving my game at a higher level to be ready for the next step.

"My whole game has improved as a player, in defence especially, also my game is more creative, I'm not just a scorer like I used to be."

One of the areas of notable improvement has been his passing game, where he has registered three or more assists in seven of his last nine games, a mark he failed to reach across his first 12 appearances as he adjusted to the league.

"The physicality of the league was a big challenge for me in the beginning, especially in preseason. Now, I think I'm doing pretty good, I'm trying to be the best player I can be," he said.

The French duo aren't shy about their goals, with the NBA dream a mere three months away. If their names are called, they will join a long line of French stars currently in the league, including Rudy Gobert, Evan Fournier and Nic Batum.

Dieng has always kept his eye on Batum, with the 14-year veteran carving out a similar role to what Dieng may play in the league, even if the current LA Clipper is a couple inches shorter.

"We are the same archetype," Dieng said. "At the moment I don't have a comparison to myself but I'm watching a lot of Kevin Durant, Paul George, Brandon Ingram and learning about them."

Describing himself as a two or a three, Dieng symbolises the new age of the NBA, where positions matter little, and versatility is the most important of commodities. As for Besson, he can flat out score, and that will never go out of fashion.

Wherever they land come June 23, both Dieng and Besson are adamant they'll look back on the rollercoaster experience with the Breakers as a vital stepping stone on their journey to the NBA.