Alex Sarr leads continuation of NBA’s French influx. Will next chapter come in Atlanta?

Alex Sarr leads continuation of NBA’s French influx. Will next chapter come in Atlanta?

CHICAGO – It seems a little too perfect, right?

The Atlanta Hawks win the NBA Draft Lottery in a year when the closest thing to a consensus top prospect, Alex Sarr, is familiar with exactly one American city: Atlanta, where he lived for a year as a member of Overtime Elite in 2022-23. A French big man who played last season for the Perth Wildcats in Australia, Sarr has lived in Spain, the U.S. and Australia over the past three years while developing his game.

At the NBA Draft Combine, Sarr told reporters he often went to Hawks games as a spectator — OTE was just two and a half miles from State Farm Arena — but he didn’t know or meet any of the players. He’ll surely recognize several of them if he’s Atlanta’s choice, as the Hawks have made virtually no transactions in the past two seasons. (That includes Clint Capela, by the way, the French-speaking center Atlanta already employs; Sarr said he and the Geneva native have never met.)

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Atlanta fans may roll their eyes at the idea that of course the Hawks won the consolation-prize lottery year — another French center went first in last year’s draft, if you haven’t heard, and the 2025 class is pretty stacked too.

Yet there is no doubt the Hawks still were tremendously fortunate last Sunday. A team that has no tanking option for the next three seasons due to unprotected picks owed from the Dejounte Murray trade instead lucked into a No. 1 overall pick anyway. Sarr might not be Victor Wembanyama, but he (or whomever the Hawks take with the first pick) still should be an impactful player, one who will also be on a team-friendly contract for four seasons. And importantly for a team that was shredded on defense a year ago, Sarr’s strengths tilt heavily toward that end of the floor.

“I’m a versatile defender,” said Sarr, who measured just under 7-feet tall without shoes last week, “and I can play inside-out offensively.”

Sarr didn’t tip his hand on city preferences at the combine but said he wanted to go No. 1.

“I’m a competitor, so I want to be first in anything I do,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s important because I can’t control it. I would (tell them) I’m the best player in the draft.”

Unlike some tall players who pick up the game late when they realize their size advantage, Sarr said he began playing basketball at the age of 4 because his father and older brother both played. (His brother Olivier played collegiately for Wake Forest and Kentucky and is currently on a two-way contract with the Oklahoma City Thunder.)

That development track is to be expected, because France has become a proper basketball country. Sarr’s emergence is part of a powerful new wave of French talent hitting the league in this three-year span. In addition to Wembanyama in 2023, the Rookie of the Year’s fellow lottery pick, Washington Wizards forward Bilal Coulibaly, and projected 2025 high lottery pick Nolan Traore, four French players are likely to be first-round picks in this draft: forwards Zaccharie Risacher, Tidjane Salaun, Pacome Dadiet and, of course, Sarr.

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The Hawks will at least consider two of them, Sarr and Risacher, at No. 1. Sarr is the name most often mentioned atop draft boards, but Atlanta executives Landry Fields and Kyle Korver and head coach Quin Snyder said au revoir to the draft combine on Thursday to jet across the pond and see Risacher play in France (including this scandalous photo from the game that shows Snyder wearing normal human glasses). Salaun, meanwhile, is a late riser who may crash the lottery similarly to how Coulibaly did a year ago. Dadiet’s range is more toward the late first round.

Given this influx, I caught up to the most prominent of the old guard French players, Minnesota Timberwolves center Rudy Gobert, before Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals to chat about his young countrymen.

“I think we got so much talent, it’s exciting,“ Gobert said. “You go (back) 20 years ago, we had a few guys like (Tony Parker) and Boris Diaw and (Nicolas) Batum, and now you look and there’s so much talent every year coming in. Credit the French clubs and the French federation for being able to develop some of this talent and allowing them to play to their abilities.”

Gobert knows Olivier Sarr well but hasn’t met Alex yet. Gobert still tracks French prospects’ games, even if the time zones don’t allow him to watch.

“It’s really important for me to be one of those guys to inspire the younger generation. Some of those older guys inspired me,” Gobert said. “It’s just the cycle. I try to lead the way and be there for them … giving them whatever knowledge or whatever they need.”

As for his scouting report on the younger Sarr?

“Sure, he’s got all the tools to be an amazing player,” Gobert said. “It’s always up to the way the guy works and his mindset and his mental toughness. In this league, that’s what it comes down to. That’s the one aspect that people don’t realize or talk about from the outside.”

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Sarr, who weighed in at 224 pounds at the combine, has a skinny frame. That takes us to Gobert’s one big piece of advice.

“Embrace the moment … and work on your body. Obviously the skill is really important, but as a 7-footer in in this league, the body is the key, and then the skill.”

Gobert and Sarr could theoretically be teammates as early as this July, when the French national team will play in the Olympics, but Sarr might be a longshot to make that roster given the presence of two star centers (Gobert and Wembanyama) on a veteran squad. More likely: Gobert will first meet Sarr in the jump-ball circle at a Timberwolves game early next season.

Whether that happens against Atlanta or another team is still anyone’s guess, and neither the Hawks nor Sarr was leaving any clues during the week. Regardless of whom they select on June 26, the Hawks are in a much better place than they were a week ago.


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(Photo of Alex Sarr: Daniel Pockett / Getty Images)

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