College basketball: Bay Area’s French Connection delivers for Santa Clara, Stanford

College basketball: Bay Area’s French Connection delivers for Santa Clara, Stanford

Bay Area college basketball has experienced a French Connection once before. Tariq Abdul-Wahad — then known as Olivier Saint-Jean — came to San Jose State from the suburbs of Paris by way of the University of Michigan and lifted the Spartans into the 1996 NCAA tournament — their only bid since 1980.

Fast forward to this season, and French-born juniors Maxime Raynaud of Stanford and Adama-Alpha Bal of Santa Clara are the leading scorers on their respective teams and candidates for all-conference honors.

Mostly, they are proud of the place their country is beginning to take on the world’s basketball stage. As many as four or five French-born players — including 6-10 forward Zaccharie Risacher and 7-1 post Alexandre Sarr — are regarded as possible first-round picks in the 2024 NBA draft.

“All the French prospects, we all played together (when we were) younger. We always knew we had something special coming,” said Bal, a 6-foot-7 guard, who is averaging 15.2 points for the Broncos in his first season after transferring from Arizona.

“We had the old generation — Evan Fournier and Rudy Gobert were really good. But we always knew we had something special, too. People are starting to recognize that we have a lot of very good players in France right now.”

Raynaud said of hits country’s hoops profile, “I think it’s getting bigger and bigger.”

A 7-1 center, who is averaging 14.6 points and 10.0 rebounds for Stanford, Raynaud added Tony Parker and Boris Diaw to the list of French pioneers in the NBA before putting an exclamation mark on 2023 No. 1 pick Victor Wembanyama.

“The younger generation is trying to do as well, if not better,” he said. “We have an amazing environment in France.”

Stanford forward Maxime Raynaud (42) during an NCAA college basketball game against Washington State in Stanford, Calif., Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu) 

Bal is pegged by as the No. 13 pick this year by Oklahoma City. If that happened, he would give Santa Clara a first-round pick three years in a row, following Jalen Williams in 2022 and Brandin Podziemski a year ago.

Raynaud does not appear on any of the mock drafts, but his ascension since arriving at Stanford has followed a steady upward arc. Last weekend he had career-best totals of 17 rebounds at Arizona State and 29 points at Arizona.

Raynaud and Bol were teammates on the French national team that won the U20 European championship last summer in Greece. Raynaud shared the team’s scoring leadership at 14.6 points per game, including 26 in the gold-medal victory over Israel. Bal was third on the team at 11.1 points, and had 19 vs. Iceland and 18 vs. Serbia.

“For us in Europe, winning the European championship and playing for our national team is like a really big deal,” Raynaud said. “It’s something that since you were a kid you’re always watching on TV. There’s great pride, it’s a great honor. It was just amazing.”

Both say the tournament was a game-changing experience.

“I started playing with most of these guys when I was 15, maybe even earlier. For me it was like playing with my friends,” Raynaud said. “Being able to go undefeated and have a huge role on that team, being kind of a leader, really helped me transferring that back to Stanford.”

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