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Okobo: 'To be included in the pool of players for the World Cup Qualifiers is a great step for me'
PAU (FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 European Qualifiers) - A call-up to France's senior squad was a birthday present of sorts for rising star Elie Okobo, one that he was more than happy to receive.
The Pau-Lacq-Orthez point guard in France's top flight turned 20 on October 23 - six days after being named in France's 24-man preliminary squad for their FIBA Basketball World Cup European Qualifiers at Belgium on November 24 and three days later at home against Bosnia and Herzegovina.
"IT'S SUCH AN HONOR FOR ME AND I HAVE BEEN WORKING HARD IN ORDER TO REACH ONE OF MY CAREER GOALS WHICH IS PLAYING FOR FRANCE AT SENIOR LEVEL." Okobo
The left-hander Okobo can score but also set up teammates with his deft passing skills, as his 12.1 points and 3.9 assists per game indicate.
He's got a couple of U20 European Championship campaigns under his belt, including this summer when he helped France finish third in Crete. In the Quarter-Finals against Serbia, Okobo erupted for 25 points, drilling 7 of 12 shots from behind the arc.
"I was a bit surprised but so happy to be included on that list of players," Okobo told FIBA.basketball. "It's such an honor for me, and I have been working hard in order to reach one of my career goals, which is playing for France at senior level."
"I knew that the staff was following my performances and receiving that call to be included in the pool of players is a great step for me. I am still going to keep working hard. That is just a first step."
Okobo nearly had a double-double in Pau's first game of the season, at Chalon/Saone, on September 23. He finished with 14 points and 8 rebounds. He also raised eyebrows with a combined 7 of 12 effort from behind the arc in games against Le Mans (September 30) and Hyeres-Toulon (October 7). He had 15 points, 6 rebounds and 3 assists in a win over ASVEL the day before his birthday.
At first a shooting guard, the 1.88m (6ft 2in) Okobo is now running the point for Pau. There is one left-handed player that he looks up to. Okobo loves watching fellow lefty James Harden wheel and deal for the Houston Rockets.
"I like his creative side," he said. "He creates so much on the court and he helps his teammates be better players. He is a guy who reads the game so well and he has a very high basketball I.Q."
Okobo doesn't discriminate against right-handed players.
"I also like Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving and Russell Westbrook, in different ways," he said. "Those players are very creative and have such a deep impact on the game of their teams, that is very inspiring. I am trying to learn a bit from all of those players, those are great sources of inspiration."
As for the switch to floor general, Okobo says there are challenges but he is going to benefit in the long run.
"My ball handling is better, my basketball IQ keeps growing and I enjoy running the plays and play for my teammates," he said. "I learn every day and that is exactly what I am looking for."
Okobo wasn't the only Pau player to be named in the squad nor was he the only player from the U20 European Championship. National team coach Vincent Collet has added his former France player, Okobo's Pau teammate, Alain Koffi, to the mix.
"It's great to have a teammate that knows already how it is to play for the senior national team, so he can give me some good advice about how it is and what to do when you wear the senior national team jersey," Okobo said. "It would be great to play with him with the Bleu jersey on."
The other U20 star in the 24 is Amine Noua, a player in the Basketball Champions League last season with ASVEL. Noua played so well at the U20 European Championship that he made the tournament's All-Star Five.
"Amine (No. 20 in photo) brings a lot of energy on the court," Okobo said. "He's a complete player. He can defend, he can shoot, he is a leader, he can score from everywhere and that is a talented guy. One of our goals was to bring a medal home this summer. The next one will be to help the senior national team and win games, medals and titles with them."
Okobo knows that Belgium and Bosnia and Herzegovina are going to be tough opponents for the French players that do make the final roster. Russia are the other side in Group E.
"It's a very balanced group," he said. "Belgium has some talented players and competed at the last couple of EuroBaskets, showing they could compete at a very high level. Bosnia and Herzegovina has a new generation of young talents, and Russia always has a solid team."
"We have to play with the same intensity and give everything on the court to win the games and get the first place. We have a lot of talent, and whoever gets picked to be part of the roster for the next two games is going to play at his best level to help France win and qualify for the World Cup in 2019."