Sat. Jul 13th, 2024

NEW YORK — Alex Sarr has spent the past five years traversing the globe to prepare himself for the NBA draft.

The charming 7-footer from Bordeaux, France, left home at 14 to join Real Madrid’s youth team in Spain. From there, he went to Atlanta in 2021 to join Overtime Elite, which helped Amen and Ausar Thompson become top-five picks in 2023. Last season, Sarr moved again in search of better competition, landing in Australia with the Perth Wildcats of the National Basketball League. When time permitted, he visited his father’s side of the family in Senegal.

On the eve of the draft, Sarr lounged comfortably on a couch at the National Basketball Players Association’s midtown Manhattan headquarters, even though he remained unsure where his journey would take him next. He could follow in the footsteps of his French countryman Victor Wembanyama and go to the Atlanta Hawks with the No. 1 pick. Or, as many prognosticators believe, he could be selected No. 2 by the Washington Wizards. If he unexpectedly slips past the Hawks and Wizards, he won’t wait long to hear his name called, given that he has drawn comparisons to all-defensive team stalwarts Jaren Jackson Jr. and Evan Mobley because of his versatility.

“That’s what’s beautiful with this draft,” Sarr said Tuesday. “There’s a lot of uncertainty. In 24 hours, I won’t have the same problems. It’s something I’ve got to enjoy and cherish the moment. A great fit for me is whatever team is willing to take a chance on me.”

Sarr, French forward Zaccharie Risacher and Connecticut center Donovan Clingan are among the leading candidates to be the first player selected in perhaps the least predictable draft of the past decade. Atlanta’s stunning win at the draft lottery — it had a 3 percent chance to claim the No. 1 spot — made this year’s class even harder to handicap in advance of Wednesday’s first round, which will be held at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

The Hawks made the 2023 postseason before sliding back into the East’s play-in tournament this past season, and they will face playoff expectations unless they pursue a rebuild by trading franchise guard Trae Young. General Manager Landry Fields said Tuesday in a radio interview that he has received calls about trading the No. 1 pick but that he planned to select first “unless something wows me.”

Atlanta’s options run the gamut stylistically. Risacher, 19, averaged 10.1 points and 3.8 rebounds while shooting 35.2 percent on three-pointers for JL Bourg in France’s top league. A dynamic offensive player who can stretch the floor, Risacher played steady minutes for Bourg, which posted a 25-9 record.

By contrast, the 20-year-old Clingan is a traditional center who stands 7-2 and helped Connecticut win its second straight national championship by averaging 13 points, 7.4 rebounds and 2.5 blocks as a sophomore.

Then there is Sarr, a 19-year-old who appears to be the most physically gifted player in the class. He glides around the court as a mobile big man, citing Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Hakeem Olajuwon as influences. He is a skilled shot-blocker, but he also has worked diligently on his outside shooting because he knows modern centers must be able to spread the court. He is polished and self-assured in front of cameras thanks to a step-by-step developmental approach that culminated with him averaging 9.7 points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in 17.2 minutes per game for Perth, which had the NBL’s second-best record.

“Every time I was getting comfortable at a spot, that’s when I wanted to move and find a new challenge so I could get better,” Sarr said. “[In Australia], we were playing winning basketball and every possession mattered. You had to lock in on little details. I was getting playing time because I was impacting winning.”

Sarr hails from a basketball family: His father, Massar, played professionally in France, and his older brother, Olivier, has spent the past three seasons with the Oklahoma City Thunder. When he was 13, Sarr first competed against Risacher in French youth tournaments. There were no signs of a bitter rivalry as the prospects shared a laugh during a youth basketball camp Tuesday.

“We grew up together competing against each other, and now we’re here in New York for the draft,” Risacher said. “This is special.”

As Risacher rose through the professional ranks in France, playing for former San Antonio Spurs star Tony Parker’s ASVEL club for multiple seasons before winning the league’s best young player honors with JL Bourg this year, Sarr started collecting passport stamps. After a growth spurt made him a 7-footer, Sarr chose to focus on developing an all-around game rather than becoming a back-to-the-basket center. While the Wizards clearly need a linchpin after ranking 28th in defensive efficiency last season, Sarr doesn’t want to be pigeonholed. With Perth, he flashed skills as an above-the-rim finisher and experimented with his outside shooting, connecting on 29.8 percent of his attempts.

“I was never one-dimensional,” he said. “I was always trying stuff on the court. My versatility gives me an edge on the other guys. I respect how skilled [Durant] is. He knows how to get to his spots. I respect the energy Giannis plays with. He plays really hard, pushes the ball and gets to the rim. I get labeled a defensive player, but I’m better on offense than I get credit for. My shooting is something that’s improving right now. My passing, feel and IQ [get overlooked]. I’m a threat on both sides of the court.”

The Hawks’ decision could hinge on their belief in Sarr’s offensive potential. If he develops into a reliable ballhandler and capable outside shooter, he seemingly would have more long-term value than Risacher, who projects as a secondary scorer, or Clingan, who will do the vast majority of his work in the paint.

Unfortunately for Atlanta, Fields confirmed Tuesday that Sarr was scheduled to work out for the Hawks but “declined” the invitation. Refusing to work out for a team in hopes of landing elsewhere is a relatively common tactic in the NBA draft, but A-list prospects rarely pass up the opportunity to be the top pick. The unusual maneuver could boil down to immediate opportunity: Atlanta has two centers, Clint Capela and Onyeka Okongwu, on its roster, while Washington created a hole at the position by shipping Daniel Gafford to the Dallas Mavericks at the trade deadline.

“I have a great team around me,” Sarr said at draft media day. “[My agent] Bill Duffy and [the Endeavor agency], they’ve already been through all of this. I trust them. I’m not going to get into the specifics of where I worked out and where I didn’t. Of course [I want to be the top pick], as a competitor, but for me it’s more important to be drafted.”

Later, at players union headquarters, a relaxed Sarr confirmed he worked out for the Wizards and painted the chatter about his Hawks snubbing as an inconvenient blip on the radar. In so doing, he already sounded like a seasoned pro.

“Of course there’s a lot of question marks,” he said. “… In 24 hours, that won’t be a problem.”

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#Alex #Sarr #land #Wizards #NBA #draft

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