Pau-Lacq-Orthez youngster Okobo turning heads in FIBA Europe Cup
PAU (FIBA Europe Cup/FIBA U20 European Championship 2017) - The name of Elie Okobo now rings a bell not only to avid followers of French basketball, but also to the wider European audience, with the 19-year-old guard from Bordeaux continuing to impress on the international stage.
Having starred for France at the FIBA U20 European Championship 2016 in Helsinki in spite of playing up an age level, Okobo has carried over the momentum into this season's FIBA Europe Cup campaign for his club side Elan Bearnais Pau-Lacq-Orthez who have been one of the more dominant teams in the competition.
After holding a minuscule role with the senior team last season, the combo guard has taken a big step forward and carved out meaningful playing time off the bench in coach Eric Barthecky’s rotation, both on the international circuit and in the French LNB Pro A.
We caught up with Okobo in France to talk about his progression, the increased playing time at Pau-Lacq-Orthez, the team’s aspirations in the FIBA Europe Cup and the upcoming FIBA U20 European Championship 2017.
You are one of the top young guns of the French Pro A and the FIBA Europe Cup. Can you tell us a bit more about yourself?
I am from Bordeaux. When I was 16 years old, I played at JSA Bordeaux in France's third division and then moved to Pau to play for Élan Bearnais Pau-Lacq-Orthez. I signed my first professional contract last summer and I am a full time member of the senior group of players at the club right now.
It has been a bit more than a year since you played your first minutes as a professional with Pau-Lacq-Orthez. What do you remember about it?
It was a bit crazy, as I was sick and it was against our biggest rival, CSP Limoges. I got into the game during the second quarter and I gave everything I had on defense. I remember missing two shots, but it was a great experience. I will never forget it.
In the past, Elan Bearnais has been known for developing young players such as Mickael Pietrus, Boris Diaw and Johan Petro. How do you feel walking in the footsteps of those talents that played in Pau?
Elan Bearnais is one of the most iconic teams in France and knowing that guys like Pietrus, Diaw and others started here is very motivating. I decided to sign with Pau because the project is very exciting and they believed in my game and me. I am getting more minutes in the Pro A and in the FIBA Europe Cup, I am happy with my situation. I am a hard worker and I am very ambitious.
What can we expect from the club in the Pro A this season?
Pau didn't have a lot of success for a couple of seasons before last year. But in the past two seasons, the dynamics have been very positive. Last year, we qualified for the Pro A Play-Offs and this year things have been going pretty well. The group is very solid and united. We are ambitious and we want to achieve great things. We have great potential and we want to make the best out of it.
Elan Bearnais has a successful history in continental competitions. How is the FIBA Europe Cup experience going on for you so far?
It's a great experience because we discover other ways of playing basketball in other countries. I am making the best out of the time that I spend on the court as I have plenty of opportunities in the FIBA Europe Cup. For me, it’s a great way to gain experience, as I am still a very young player.
Pau won the Korac Cup in 1984, almost 33 years ago. Do you guys talk about the possibility of winning the second continental cup in the club’s history?
We don't talk that much about it, but we want to go far in the competition. We take the games one after another as they come and we stay focused. Winning the title can be a goal, but so far we need to go step by step. One thing we are sure of is that we want to have a great and long European campaign this year.
Last summer you played at the FIBA U20 European Championship. Despite France's disappointing campaign, you had a very good tournament individually. What did you learn from that experience?
It was disappointing because we didn't have a great campaign but I learned a lot at a personal level. Playing against the best guys of your age is always interesting. Competing against Europe's top prospects is a great learning experience. Although we finished 13th, we achieved our goal of staying in Division A after having a very bad start to the campaign.
You are one of the youngest prospects that has consistent playing time in the French Pro A. Is it a goal of yours to play at another U20 Championship this summer?
Yes, absolutely. I played last summer being a year younger than most of the guys. It’s in my mind, but for now I am focused on my season with Elan Bearnais. This season is very important for me and it would be great to do better for the next continental tournament than last summer with the "bleuets".
I think we can bring home some more titles. We have a lot of talented guys and there is definitely a huge potential for the youth national teams to succeed. Hopefully we will win some titles and then some of us will go to join the senior national team in the future!
Your way of playing is very offensive-minded and fast-paced. Which player do you get inspired from?
I really like James Harden. His offensive game inspires me a lot, he is unstoppable one-on-one. I also watch a lot of point guards such as Kyrie Irving and Stephen Curry to learn as much as I can about their game. I am trying to learn a lot about playing at the point guard position.