The future is French: Victor Wembanyama on the NBA’s influx of talent from France


Victor Wembanyama was willing to do whatever his coaches asked. But he certainly had his preference.

Wembanyama was still on a minutes restriction and had been sitting out the second game of back-to-back sets after playing the first night. But this was different.

The San Antonio Spurs were in the middle of a five-game road trip and set to face the Charlotte Hornets on a Friday night, with a visit to the nation’s capital to take on Washington Wizards the following night. Of the two, it was the Wizards game that was truly special for Wembanyama, and the one he wanted to play, because of who he’d be facing.

Wembanyama, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2023 NBA draft, and Wizards rookie Bilal Coulibaly, the No. 8 selection, had been friends long before they were teammates last season in the French Pro A League with Mets 92.

After missing each other in the summer league because Wembanyama played only the Spurs’ first two games, this was set to be their first matchup against one another. All that needed to happen was for Wembanyama to sit against Charlotte.

Once he found out his coaches were letting him play against Coulibaly, the significance of the moment set in.

“At the time [when we were kids], it was just dreams and something crazy,” Wembanyama said. “But we both happened to make it here and I’m just so proud of him. It’s going to feel weird for sure.”

On a cold night in Washington on Jan. 20, the two squared off, with Wembanyama’s Spurs coming from behind late to defeat Coulibaly’s Wizards 131-127.

It wasn’t until the 1:36 mark in the third quarter that the two shared the court. Coulibaly quickly got the better of his countryman by blocking an alley-oop attempt.

During the postgame news conference, Coulibaly had to check the box score on the table to make sure he was credited with the block.

“That’s just what I wanted,” Coulibaly said. “I wanted to dunk on him but that was a little much. I had the block, so I’m happy with that.”

When the final buzzer sounded, Wembanyama and Coulibaly met at half court and exchanged jerseys. It was only the second jersey swap Wembanyama had this season — the first was with fellow Frenchman Rudy Gobert.

Wembanyama, Coulibaly and Gobert are just three of a record 14 players who represent France in the NBA this season, according to the league. Five are rookies (Wembanyama, Coulibaly, Portland’s Rayan Rupert, Detroit’s Malcolm Cazalon and San Antonio’s Sidy Cissoko) and two debuted last season (Oklahoma City’s Ousmane Dieng and the Clippers’ Moussa Diabate).

Their ranks will grow soon.

The latest 2024 NBA mock draft from ESPN draft experts Jonathan Givony and Jeremy Woo has four French players projected to go in Round 1, including the top two picks and three of the first six. “Can you believe it?,” Wembanyama told ESPN. “I don’t think any country but the United States, of course, has done that before.”

“That would be crazy. That would be a statement like never before. It would mean a lot.” There has never been an NBA draft where international players were taken with the top two selections, let alone two from the same country.

Wembanyama and Coulibaly met again Monday night. This time it was Coulibaly’s Wizards who came from behind to get a 118-113 win, spoiling a chance for Wembanyama to win three consecutive games against French opponents. The Spurs defeated Rupert and the Blazers on Friday and Gobert and the Timberwolves on Saturday.

And they weren’t the only French representation in San Antonio. Boris Diaw, who won a title with the Spurs in 2014 and now serves as the general manager of the French national team, took advantage of the three-game swing to pay a visit, along with France head coach Vincent Collet and other national team staffers. Diaw even took part in some 3-on-3 action at Spurs’ shootaround on Monday morning.

In the coming years, with an influx of talent from France on the way, there will be more of these visits for Wembanyama.

“It feels great that finally we have more recognition now. Everyone in the world wants to taste the product, the French product,” Wembanyama said with a laugh. “So I’m glad this is happening. We got so much talent over.”

Wembanyama said he has had a chance to spend time with each of France’s four potential 2024 first-round picks and has gotten to know them a little. Recently, he sat down with ESPN and shared his thoughts on all four.

Alex Sarr | Perth Wildcats | PF/C | Age: 18.7

Sarr, whose older brother, Olivier, is on a two-way contract with the Oklahoma City Thunder and has appeared in 41 games with the franchise over the past three seasons, has played in many different places early in his young career.

The younger Sarr joined Real Madrid’s youth team in 2019 for two seasons and then played in the Overtime Elite league from 2021 to ’23. Sarr then signed on to play in the NBL’s Next Stars program and joined Perth.

In 19 games this season, Sarr is averaging 9.1 points and 4.2 rebounds.

“Alex, it struck me when I first saw him, it was in 2020,” Wembanyama said. “I didn’t know him at all. I never heard of him. And he was just a crazy talent. And you could see that he was willing to get better and to win, but at the time it felt like he didn’t know really himself, how to play and how to use his body.

“And now, I mean, he’s just been getting better and better over the years. Great talent. And he’s had such an unconventional path as well. He has been all over the world.”

Wembanyama and Sarr never had the chance to play together, but the Spurs rookie said they played against each other at a camp once.

Zaccharie Risacher | JL Bourg | SF | Age: 18.7

Before Wembanyama joined Metropolitans 92, he played for another French league team, ASVEL.

When Wembanyama was there, Risacher was getting started with the team’s youth program.

“I got to spend a little bit of time with him,” Wembanyama said. “And we were both really young at the time, but back then even sometimes he practiced with us and he was just doing some crazy things in terms of talent. He’s definitely up there in that draft class. I probably don’t know anybody more talented than him in this draft class.”

Woo recently outlined Risacher’s chances to go No. 1. And Wembanyama believes in him as well.

“And he’s just all around,” Wembanyama said. “He can do pretty much everything. He’s very long, can block a lot of shots and offensively he can just let him do his thing. He’s had the chance to have a professional start like very few do. I mean, in Europe, very few players can get from the youth programs to the professional, and he’s one of them and he’s actually dominating this year. He was an all-star in France. So yeah, I mean, it’s all going well so far. I’m proud of what he’s doing.”

Tidjane Salaun | Cholet | PF | Age: 18.4

Salaun is one of the prospects Wembanyama has known the longest. They met in 2017 because both of their sisters — Janelle Salaun and Eve Wembanyama — were on the U16 national team, along with Rupert’s sister, Iliana, who went on to be the No. 12 selection in the 2022 WNBA draft and was a part of the Las Vegas Aces’ 2022 championship team before playing last season with the Atlanta Dream.

“That was fun. We were kids at the time, so we were just playing around in a playground, shooting some shots,” Wembanyama said. “So all three of our sisters were on this team. Yeah, so our families know each other. We spent some time together.”

Salaun began playing with Cholet’s senior team this season and has struggled to get his shot to fall at times. But Wembanyama is convinced he will get better with time.

“I’m glad that he’s finally getting some professional time, professional performances,” Wembanyama said. “His work ethic and will to get better are just up there. I also spent a little bit of time in the summer of 2022 with him working out. I can trust this guy to get better and to work out like crazy.”

Melvin Ajinca | Saint Quentin | SG/SF | Age: 19.5

Wembanyama’s ties with Ajinca go even further back than his ties with Salaun.

“I think I’ve known him for almost 10 years now,” Wembanyama said. “I wasn’t older than 11 when I played against him for the first time.”

Ajinca was teammates with Wembanyama’s current Spurs teammate Sidy Cissoko, and Wembanyama remembered playing against both at a young age.

“They were beating us pretty often, but we were beating them as much or more than they were beating us, but it was always a battle,” Wembanyama said.

Ajinca, whose cousin Alexis Ajinca played seven seasons in the NBA, made a jump last summer when he became the second-leading scorer on France’s U19 team and jumped up draft boards.

“He’s always been [among] the best talents of our generation and at some point, I don’t know what happened, but he just got absolutely jacked and he started jumping out of the building,” Wembanyama said. “The one thing he did different than anyone at the time was making shots. He was making tough shots, and he had a reliable shot for a long time.

“I think he was a surprising prospect because he’s now at the professional level when guys who were at first sight more talented than him have totally disappeared, and he’s still there. And I’m glad to see a guy I spent so much time with and grew up playing against, I’m glad to see a guy like this being close to the league now.”

Because Ajinca is slightly older than the other prospects, Wembanyama does have some experience playing with him. The two spent a camp together playing against the national team as a part of the extended team brought in and also played on a regional selection team where they won a national championship together.

So what does it say about the state of French basketball now that there’s a bevy of prospects — including Pacome Dadiet, the No. 47 prospect in the ESPN draft rankings — making a name for themselves?

“I mean, it just makes me happy,” Wembanyama said. “From my point of view, It feels weird because, I mean, first of all, even just a couple months back, the NBA was still a dream for me. Growing up, I never thought I would meet these guys again and play against them [for] many years in the best league in the world. I just feel very proud of them, and it’s incredible.

“I think it’s going to feel weird when I’m playing against them.”

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