19 February, 2024
25 February, 2025
Next Big Thing: Why is Alex Sarr the projected #1 pick in the NBA draft?
to read

Next Big Thing: The rapid rise of French wonderkid Alex Sarr - the #1 pick?

MUNICH (Germany) - When Alex Sarr hears his name called at the NBA Draft on 27 June, it will simultaneously mark the start of his NBA career and the end of a journey of continuous development, which took him to three different continents over the last five years.

Sarr was born in Bordeaux, France to a basketball family. His father Massar was a professional basketball player and his brother Olivier - who is six years older - was a stand out prospect who played for the French youth national team in a pair of FIBA competitions. Alex would soon follow in their footsteps, and in 2019, as Olivier was gearing up for his junior season for Wake Forest in the NCAA, he would make the move to Spain and join basketball powerhouse Real Madrid.

Spanish scout Ramon Bobillo, who has closely followed the junior ranks of Real Madrid for more than a decade, caught an early glimpse of Sarr's talent when he was just a lanky 14-year-old playing at an invitational tournament in Madrid. "He was still developing physically, he was skinny and lacked coordination," Bobillo remembers. "But he showed surprising flashes of shooting the ball and good touch scoring around the rim."

Soon after, Sarr would take the first of many leaps in his development and once he reached the U16 level, it was a different story.

"He was close to 6'11" and had improved his athleticism and coordination. It was clear that his physical potential was extraordinary and that his profile could be that of an NBA player if he kept developing," Bobillo says before concluding. "But there’s a world of distance between that and being a potential number one overall pick in the draft."

His development in Madrid was being followed closely not only by local scouts, but also by the coaches of the French junior national teams, and Sarr would make his FIBA debut for Les Bleus at the 2021 U16 European Challengers, where his two-way impact was key for France dominance, as they finished with a 5-0 record and a average margin of victory of 34.6 points.

Sarr would reprise his performances at both the 2022 FIBA U17 Basketball World Cup and the 2023 FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup and for many in France, he was seen as the team's wildcard.

"Sarr had a rather unusual journey, as he left very early for Spain to continue his training. In France, we had a lot of questions about him, especially since he carried a good level of hype," explains Matthias Coso, a France-based scout who covers the NBA Draft for the site Envergure.

"In these tournaments we saw his ability to defend well, to switch on multiple positions, to protect the rim. However we also saw him struggling to box out, grab rebounds. I found it hard to imagine him being a top 3 draft pick at that moment."

Sarr made his next move in the 2021-22 season, signing with Overtime Elite in the United States, where he would continue his development for the following two seasons before going on the road again, signing with the NBL Next Stars program in Australia ahead of the current season.

Having entered the year as a projected first round pick and one of many players to watch ahead of the 2024 NBA Draft, Sarr quickly showed that his unique athleticism translated to the pro level and that the flashes of two-way impact were coming to fruition.

"I SEE HIM AS ONE OF THE BEST TWO-WAY PLAYERS IN THIS YEAR'S DRAFT."- Isaac Condra, NBA Draft writer for Sports Illustrated

Michael Houben
, a Melbourne-based scout and founder of the scouting service Airtime, had the chance of watching the French phenom live this season. "Everything said about Sarr is clear in person, particularly his mobility - his fluidity in the open court and ability to cover ground as both a rim and switch defender was truly impactful and something we haven't seen to the extent of Sarr in the NBL before."

Sarr was key for the Wildcats to finish the season with the second best record in the NBL and reach the league’s Semifinals.

As Houben notes, "Sarr is the Next Star that has had the greatest impact on winning basketball games in his time here. The Wildcats are a winning organization, uninterested in accommodating for developmental minutes, and yet Sarr played a significant role, helping them finish second by the end of the NBL regular season."

As the season progressed, his stellar performances transcended the Australian basketball landscape and started to catch the attention of NBA scouts, as Sarr was starting to climb up draft boards. Once his NBL season was over, Sarr declared for the NBA Draft, where he's currently ranked as the top player on the board by multiple experts.

"His unique blend of size, length, and skills are tailored for today's NBA," says Rafael Barlowe, Director of Scouting for the website NBA Big Board, who currently has Sarr atop of his rankings ahead of the 2024 NBA draft. "I see Sarr as an all-NBA caliber defender and borderline All-Star, as he is a switchy defender who can guard all over the floor. He's a force as a rim protector, using his length, athleticism, and instincts to alter shots around the basket."

With his physical profile, Sarr is a natural fit at the center position with his ability to finish plays around the basket, however, one of the most interesting developments this season has been his offense beyond the three-point line.

"Sarr's advanced passing skill, and ball-handling are pretty unique for a player of his size," Barlowe notes. "He has the handle to drive past slower defenders and the length to shoot over the top of smaller defenders."

While his 27.6 percent mark from beyond the arc suggest that the jumper is still a work in progress, those who watched him up close are optimistic. "His general touch and form seemed promising, and being able to watch him in warmups and gain feedback from those within the organization on a daily basis has made me increasingly positive that, given the work, Sarr can be a consistent floor spacing big long term on the offensive end," explains Houben.

This combination of elite measurements, versatile defense, interior finishing and flashes of perimeter game make him an extremely enticing prospect from an NBA standpoint, and potentially a number one pick.

"I see him as one of the best two-way players in this year's draft," says Isaac Condra, NBA Draft writer for Sports Illustrated. "I believe he'll be an all-defensive team candidate due to his elite rim protection, defensive versatility and great feel for the game."

The impact of Sarr going number one overall in the draft would be significant for Australian basketball. Even if there have been players from Australia who have claimed the top spot in the NBA Draft over the last 20 years, like Andrew Bogut and Ben Simmons, this would be the highest a player has ever been drafted while playing for an Australian team.

"It would be a massive feather in the cap of both the NBL, and the Perth Wildcats in particular," says Houben. "It's clear the NBL is keen to continue to grow the program, luring not just European players but more top US talent. Having success stories like Sarr will be pivotal for recruiting players next year and beyond."


The impact, however, would be just as big for French basketball.

"A few years ago, it would have seemed impossible or unimaginable to have a French guy selected number one in the Draft," Coso points out. "Wemby has stirred up a lot of excitement in France, it has really brought basketball back into the spotlight. Having several french players evolving in the NBA could help elevate the status of basketball in France."

Despite the excitement, and even with all the talent and with his promising future, Sarr's place on France's rotation is a question mark, as the team has arguably the two best rim protectors in the world.

As Condra puts it, "He's obviously not on the level of a Victor Wembanyama or Rudy Gobert at this stage, so he would likely be getting limited minutes off the bench."

Sarr, however, offers a level of versatility on both ends of the floor that few other seven-footers in the world do, which bodes well for his long-term fit alongside Wembanyama. "His ability space the floor allows him to be paired with an interior player, and that's why the fit with Wemby does not seem impossible or even bad," says Coso.

Barlowe, in that sense, is even more optimistic.

"Sarr, Wembanyama and Bilal Coulibaly will form a nasty defensive front court that will keep France as a medal contender for the next 10-15 years. In my opinion they have the length, athleticism and defenders to make a lot of noise."

It's a significant moment for French basketball, and the possibility of having their second straight number one overall pick in the NBA draft, would simultaneously represent the culmination of a long process and the beginning of a new era.

"We can't have so much talent without good development and work being done in basketball at the youth levels. All the recent talents drafted are players with a great mindset, a good entourage, and are not afraid to play in pro leagues whether it's in France or in Australia," Coso states before putting the world on notice: "And if you're looking at the future, you won't be surprised to see more young prospects from France who won’t take long to emerge."

Enjoyed the article?

The 'Next Big Thing' series takes a look at several prospects from across Europe. Make sure you check out the other stories:

- Zacharie Risacher: the potential #1 draft pick, shining bright in Bourg-en-Bresse
- Nikola Topic: the best Serbian prospect since... Nikola Jokic?