Why you should care
Because these players are the big ones to watch.
Charlotte Hornets small forward Nicolas Batum is often a lone Frenchman on the basketball court. But he wasn’t during one game in November — the night he took on two of his countrymen: Tony Parker and Boris Diaw of the San Antonio Spurs. Soon enough, a matchup like that one won’t be so rare.
The French are coming.
Since the first jeune géantes started appearing on the court over the past several years, the writing’s been on the wall. The future of the NBA looks increasingly European. And though not all of the Frenchies are exactly setting the NBA world on fire, some are major starters, and plenty are visible. Rudy Gobert, for instance, at 7-foot-2, has the largest wingspan in NBA history and is among the league’s leaders in blocks per minute. (No wonder he’s nicknamed the “Stifle Tower.”) Superstar Parker, the onetime husband of actress Eva Longoria, is a four-time championship winner and an NBA Finals MVP.
From tennis to soccer, the French boast an outsized amount of talent for a population of just 66 million. Why? The reasons go back to France’s colonial history and forward to immigration patterns, but nearly all the best players share this: They have profited from France’s knack for training kids. Teens can move away from home to play for professional feeder teams. Those leagues are a step up from American travel teams: In addition to their professional status, they often take kids into full-time sports academies. They function like the minor leagues in baseball, cultivating young talent.
The academies have produced championship skaters, fencers and ballers.
The results: Since 2007, seven of the last nine NBA drafts have featured at least one French-bred player selected in the first round; French women took silver in basketball at the 2012 Olympics; and French men finished third at the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup, upsetting host nation Spain. In the NBA, there are now at least 11 French players, up seven from a decade earlier.
Many players are black — in line with the NBA’s demographics — or sons of African immigrants. Many, also, are the sons of decent athletes who never made it big themselves. Much like in the U.S., sports in France can be an escape plan for youths from immigrant families, some of whom might otherwise end up in gangs. Stefan Szymanski, co-director of the Michigan Center of Sport Management at the University of Michigan, said that especially in a country where opportunities are scarce and discrimination runs rampant, “Kids looking for a way out are driven as much by hope as reality.”
At age 14 — and already 6 feet tall — Ian Mahinmi, the son of Beninese and Jamaican immigrants to France, moved away from his family to focus full time on basketball. He attended an advanced sports boarding academy, where students learn in traditional classrooms and practice a range of sports, including basketball, track, tennis, soccer and archery. Mahinmi, now an Indiana Pacers center, eventually made it to the highest echelons after spending four years with a pro club’s younger team. There’s an academy in every major French city, and they’ve produced championship skaters, fencers and ballers.
Seeing two fellow countrymen win a championship across the pond changed things.
Twenty-three-year-old Gobert, a Utah Jazz center, went through France’s developmental system. He started playing around age 7 and joined the pro pipeline by 13. Another star, 23-year-old, 6-foot-7 shooting guard Evan Fournier of the the Orlando Magic, averages a career-best 17.2 points per game and converts 39 percent of his 3-point attempts. (Impressive.) Likewise, Batum, who turns 27 in December, is known as a strong player for the Hornets. Plus, there’s two-time NBA All-Star Joakim Noah (son of tennis star Yannick Noah and grandson of a pro soccer player), an American who spent much of his childhood in France. And Swiss player Clint Capela, a 2014 first-rounder, attended high school at Parker and Diaw’s alma mater.
The talent pool may dry up, though. According to French Basketball Federation President Jean-Pierre Siutat, sports agents are convincing parents to take their kids out of these academies, recruiting them instead to American colleges. Which may, ironically, deprive kids of the very academies that could get them into the NBA faster.
Or, there’s a Great Man theory of this history: Parker (the son of an American college basketball player) and Diaw (whose mother once starred for the French national team) were glass-shatterers who “opened the door,” Mahinmi told OZY. The NBA wasn’t even on Mahinmi’s mind when he was young; he preferred soccer, like most French kids. But seeing two of his countrymen win a championship changed things. When Mahinmi first joined the NBA, it was as a member of the Spurs, a team renowned for scouting and developing European players. (It’s a small world: Mahinmi played with Parker’s brother in France.)
There are still more promising young athletes to come. Mahinmi cites 17-year-old Killian Tillie, who led France to its first under-16 European gold since 2004. France went a perfect 9-0, with MVP Tillie garnering 25 points and 18 rebounds in the championship game. “He’s probably the next guy that’s gonna have an impact in the NBA,” said Mahinmi. Tillie’s oldest brother, Kim, played for the University of Utah and currently plays for the national team. And 24-year-old center Joffrey Lauvergne, at 6-foot-10, averaged 9.2 points and 5.3 rebounds during the FIBA World Cup and even caught the Denver Nuggets’ attention in the NBA’s 2013 draft.
Et la révolution continue …