The French basketball revolution arrives at the 2024 NBA draft

Home » The French basketball revolution arrives at the 2024 NBA draft
The French basketball revolution arrives at the 2024 NBA draft

NEW YORK – On the 101st floor of the Edge building, NBA draft prospect Alexandre Sarr appeared on top of the world with the spotlight on him and France.

During a panel discussion with Kenny “The Jet” Smith, Australia National Basketball League commissioner Jeremy Loeliger turned to Sarr and said, “There is something in the water in France. It’s a special time in France.”

Those words certainly rang true as France waved its flag high during the first round of the 2024 NBA draft on Wednesday. The San Antonio Spurs selected Victor Wembanyama No. 1 in 2023, and another Frenchman was the first overall pick in the draft when the Atlanta Hawks selected Zaccharie Risacher on Wednesday. Fellow Frenchmen followed, with Sarr going second to the Washington Wizards, Tidjane Salaün going sixth to the Charlotte Hornets and Pacôme Dadiet going 25th to the New York Knicks. French forward Melvin Ajinça is a candidate to be drafted in the second round on Thursday.

“That’s amazing. We are trying to represent our country, and I’m so glad to be a part of it,” Risacher said. “There are more players coming in. I’m really proud of being a part of the success of my country. Trying to understand what Victor, [Minnesota Timberwolves center] Rudy [Gobert] or other French players [went through] really helped me to develop myself as a player, first of all, in France, and hopefully now in the NBA.”

The first draft for the NBA, then known as the Basketball Association of America, took place in 1947 with Clifton McNeely selected first overall by the Pittsburgh Ironmen. The first international player selected first overall was Mychal Thompson of the Bahamas by the Portland Trail Blazers in 1978. Through the 2022 NBA draft, Bahamas, Nigeria, Jamaica, the U.S. Virgin Islands, China, Australia, Italy and Canada all had No. 1 picks.

It wasn’t until the 2023 draft that France finally had a No. 1 selection when Wembanyama was taken by the Spurs. A record 14 French players were on opening-night rosters last season, and the NBA says the level of talent coming out of France is driving significant interest in the country.

Suddenly, France appeared to become a basketball hotbed.

“We have a lot of young kids that believe,” Gobert told Andscape. “It started with the older generation that paved the way for us and now we are paving the way for the younger guys. And now, any kid that grows up in France dreams and believes they can make it to the NBA one day.”

NBA draft prospects Alexandre Sarr (left) and Tidjane Salaün (right) attend the 2024 NBA draft June 26 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York.

Mike Lawrence/NBAE via Getty Images

The 2024 NBA draft was the first time that three players outside the United States were taken within the first 10 picks in the modern draft era (since 1966). Two of the three players from Europe taken first overall – Risacher, Wembanyama and Andrea Bargnani (Italy) – are from France. With the selection of Sarr, it was the first time in NBA history that the first two picks were French and international. Salaün, who turns 19 on Aug. 10, is also the youngest French player to get drafted since Ian Mahinmi was drafted by the Spurs in 2005.

Risacher says he wasn’t surprised that France had three players taken in the top 6. Sarr and Salaün agreed.

“The basketball in France has improved, and that’s why we are here in this draft. Three French players in the top 10, it’s not nothing,” said Salaün, whose mother is of Malian and Guadeloupean descent.

“It just shows the amount of talent that we have in France,” Sarr said.

“Thirty years ago, we decided to mostly focus on French and African players. And people were telling us that we were crazy and we would never make money because the best players were American. We had two clients at that time, but you know the game is becoming global.”

— Bouna Ndiaye, co-founder and CEO of Comsport

So how did the NBA’s French revolution begin?

Rudy Bourgarel, Gobert’s father, played forward at Marist College from 1985 to 1988 with center Rik Smits, who went on to play for the Indiana Pacers. The 7-foot Bourgarel averaged 10.7 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.5 blocks during his junior year but was not drafted by the NBA in 1989 despite interest. Bourgarel ended up playing professionally in France and eventually moved to Guadeloupe.

“I heard he was going to get drafted, but the French national team wanted him to play for them, so he had to pass on the workouts and the draft in order to do that,” Gobert told Andscape in 2020. “He told the French team no. The French national team made him come back to France to do to his military service. Those days, you had to do it. He didn’t end up doing any military service, but he was forced to come back to France, so he couldn’t do NBA workouts.

“But if he went to the NBA, I wouldn’t be here. It’s destiny. After that happened, he ended up playing in France. He played in Paris and Saint-Quentin, where he met my mom.”

In 1997, former NBA forward Tariq Abdul-Wahad, formerly Olivier Saint-Jean, was the first French player drafted in the NBA who played in the league. The former San Jose State star was selected by the Sacramento Kings with the 11th overall pick. The defensive specialist averaged 7.8 points and 3.3 rebounds in 236 games while playing for Sacramento, the Orlando Magic, the Denver Nuggets and Dallas Mavericks from 1997 to 2003.

Abdul-Wahad is still very proud of the French history he made and had an intriguing take on it.

“Being the first is always the hardest …,” Abdul-Wahad told Andscape. “The Senegalese soldiers saved France in World War I and World War II, especially World War II. It was an African regiment they used to send first. That is kind of what it feels like, because you’re going to catch the first bullet. In other words, you’re the standard. Whatever happens to you good, bad or indifferent, it is going to be blown out of proportion or be an event because you’re the first to do it.

“But now there has been 30 players in the league who have been drafted, cut, extended, got hurt. Everybody went through whatever an NBA player went through. So, it’s no longer a story. Now it’s easier to put my journey into perspective with all the other players.”

Dallas Mavericks forward Tariq Abdul-Wahad (left) talks with San Antonio Spurs guard Tony Parker (right) during Game 5 of the Western Conference finals at SBC Center on May 27, 2003, in San Antonio.

Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Wembanyama’s co-agent Bouna Ndiaye is the co-founder and CEO of French company Comsport. Ndiaye and fellow Frenchman Jeremy Medjana share the duties of representing Wembanyama. Ndiaye represents multiple NBA players from France, including Wembanyama, Gobert, Nicolas Batum, Evan Fournier and Bilal Coulibaly, who was selected by the Washington Wizards with the No. 7 pick last year.

Ndiaye said his colleagues laughed at him when he decided to focus on representing French and African basketball players in 1999.

“Thirty years ago, we decided to mostly focus on French and African players,” Ndiaye said. “And people were telling us that we were crazy and we would never make money because the best players were American. We had two clients at that time, but you know the game is becoming global.

“Less than 4% of players in the NBA in 1999 were French. There was Tariq Abdul-Wahad and Tony Parker. Tony Parker broke the mental barrier of even if you’re not a big guy you can make it as a guard. He changed the mindset of everyone. Now with Victor coming, he’s looking like he is going to be the face of this league.”

The respect for French basketball intensified with Parker’s arrival in 2001. Parker wasn’t a heralded draft pick by any means, selected with the 28th overall pick by the Spurs in 2001. The 6-2 point guard became a six-time NBA All-Star and a four-time champion. Parker became the first European to win NBA Finals MVP in 2007. The 18-year NBA veteran was named to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2023.

There has been many successful French basketball players in the NBA since Parker entered the league. Gobert is one of the greatest French players of all time as a four-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year and a projected Hall of Famer. Batum, now with the Philadelphia 76ers, has been playing for 16 seasons. Boris Diaw was the NBA’s Most Improved Player in 2006 and won a title with the Spurs in 2014. Wembanyama was the 2023-24 NBA Rookie of the Year. Four Frenchmen, Wembanyama, Coulibaly, Rayan Rupert and Sidy Cissoko, were drafted in 2023.

“We’re having good players each and every year,” Coulibaly said. “Sidy and Rayan also got drafted. So, everyone is thinking, ‘Yeah, we can do it, too.’ ”

Other notable French NBA players include Mahinmi, Fournier, Ronny Turiaf, Mickael Pietrus, Frank Ntilikina, Sekou Doumbouya, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Killian Hayes, Ousmane Dieng and Alexandre Sarr’s brother Olivier. Alexandre Sarr said Parker had a major influence on him.

“Just seeing the [championship] rings and how successful he was in the NBA, he makes you dream of being successful, too,” Sarr told Andscape.

Risacher says he was inspired when Wembanyama and Coulibaly were selected last year. But of all the French basketball players, Risacher said, he was most motivated by his father. Stéphane Risacher was a six-time French League All-Star who played in France, Spain and Greece and won a silver medal in the 2000 Summer Olympics for France.

“It’s been my father for [many] years,” Risacher told Andscape. “I’m the kind of guy who can take inspiration off a lot of people. I’m really curious. I want to take pieces from everywhere. Even last season, Bilal and Victor really inspired me, too. Growing up there were a lot of French players who inspired me …

“[My father] was the first player I ever watched. And when I got my first iPhone I used to watch his highlights on YouTube.”

Sarr’s father, Massar, also has been a huge basketball influence for him as he played professionally in France after coming from his native Dakar, Senegal. Abdul-Wahad, who played with Stéphane Risacher, said: “Now the floodgates are open and there are kids playing whose fathers were from my generation. That is an interesting development.

“French basketball is going to produce players. It doesn’t mean it’s going to produce Hall of Famers. It doesn’t mean that it’s going to present players that have long careers. But what it means is there is a conflation of things. Talent-level, Afro-heritage, training regimen, style of play.”

San Antonio Spurs center Victor Wembanyama (right) with Washington Wizards forward Bilal Coulibaly (left) after the game Jan. 20 at Capital One Arena in Washington.

Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

There have been a lot of African, African American and Afro-Caribbean influences on French basketball stars. Abdul-Wahad’s mother, George Goudet, who played pro basketball, and father are from French Guiana. Parker’s father is an African American from Chicago. Gobert’s father is from Guadeloupe. Wembanyama’s father is Congolese. Coulibaly’s parents are from Mali.

“They talk about it on the French soccer team, but they don’t talk about it on the basketball team,” Abdul-Wahad said. “But it’s the same dynamic even though the powers that be of basketball in France didn’t plan for it to go in that direction. They wanted the great white hope as much as anybody. But that is not what they got.

“They got Victor. They got Coulibaly. They got guys from the suburbs. Sons of ex-players. It’s great.”

Massar Sarr now has two sons in the NBA and is looking forward to seing the effect that they will have in Senegal. Alexandre Sarr told Andscape he plans to have basketball camps and a charitable impact in Senegal.

“They bring athleticism. They bring liberties in the way they play basketball. It’s something with the historic connection with France and its colonies that there are many guys with athleticism. And they bring the level up for the game,” Massar Sarr said of the African influence on French basketball.

With the arrival of phenom Wembanyama and three potential future stars in Risacher, Sarr and Salaün, the spotlight on French basketball has never been bigger. What also is different now from the days of big men such as Turiaf, Mahinmi and Gobert is that today’s French new age big men are very skilled offensively and able to dribble like guards and shoot 3-pointers.

Ndiaye credited the French basketball coaches for their young players being well-rounded.

“We have talent. Physical talent like America. We’re athletic in France like Canada and [the] U.S.,” Ndiaye said. “French basketball coaches are really good at developing [basketball] IQ. You see it on all the club teams.”

“They talk about it on the French soccer team, but they don’t talk about it on the basketball team. But it’s the same dynamic even though the powers that be of basketball in France didn’t plan for it to go in that direction. They wanted the great white hope as much as anybody. But that is not what they got. They got Victor [Wembanyama]. They got [Bilal] Coulibaly. They got guys from the suburbs. Sons of ex-players. It’s great.”

— Tarik Abdul-Wahad

Risacher, Sarr and Salaün have known each other, played together and played against each other since they were 13. Wembanyama and Risacher were teammates with Parker. Gobert believes this generation has had better training and information than he had growing up.

“With all the information the people in France give these kids [to give them] an opportunity to get better and get to that level, it’s huge,” Gobert said. “Talent, when you look at this year’s draft, is crazy. I don’t think we’ve ever had that many kids in the first round. You have to give credit to everyone.”

Abdul-Wahad doesn’t believe that Europe is producing more skilled players than America, and said that the tighter European defenses aid development.

“The lack of spacing in European basketball creates players that are better in tight spaces,” Abdul-Wahad said. “So, if they’re comfortable in tight spaces, they’re comfortable in wide spaces. The game is fairly physical in Europe right now. So, it just fits with the league. It just makes sense.”

Risacher said that it’s special for him, Sarr and Salaün to realize their dream together. It’s also a special time for French basketball. France is hosting the 2024 Olympic Games with a men’s basketball team led by Gobert, Wembanyama and Coulibaly. Risacher, Sarr and Salaün were not on the preliminary national team roster announced in May, but considering the increase in talent from French basketball, the country is expected to have a major impact in the NBA and international basketball.

“I was trying to tell people last year we got more people coming. That’s what is happening. I’m a proud French person. We know basketball in France is getting bigger. So, I’m happy,” Coulibaly said.

Say hello to the new generation of French stars — Wembanyama, Coulibaly, Risacher, Sarr and Salaün — who are inspiring the next generation of Frenchmen. Risacher says more are on the way.

“I feel like French players are going to take some inspiration, and that’s going to be better and better for us,” Risacher said. “I really feel lucky because there’s so many young players that are good.”

The NBA is truly a global game now.

“It’s very cool to see,” Gobert told Andscape. “Credit to the NBA for doing such a great job promoting the game worldwide, and credit to all the coaches and people in France that put their energy into helping these kids develop. It’s great to see that kids from anywhere in the world can now dream of making it to the NBA.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.