Reliving FIBA youth events - When Yves Pons took the world's breath away
Once a month the Eye on the Future column will look back at some of the memorable performances at a FIBA youth competitions.
REGENSBURG (David Hein's Eye on the Future) - What were you doing on June 30, 2016? If you happened to be in Zaragoza, Spain, you were probably trying to get over the amazement you were watching. And if you weren’t in northeastern Spain, you were following the FIBA U17 Basketball World Cup 2016 online and trying to get over the amazement you were watching.
If you are drawing a blank on what happened that day, here are two words as a trigger: Yves Pons.
The answer to your big reflective smile: Yeah, right? How much fun was that?
"Freak athlete" gets thrown around a lot in basketball scouting circles. Any high level basketball player is an über-freak athletically compared to everyday mere mortals. But Yves Pons was - and still is - one of the few prospects who truly deserved the freak athlete tag.
Possessing seemingly never-ending arms as well as a compact and muscular frame, Pons finishes at the rim at an elite level, while also being able to get there on the dribble. Defensively, the most accurate word to describe Pons is "menacing". He will not let offensive players get past him on the drive and his outstanding closing speed and anticipation blocks any passing lane that may have been there.
Speaking of blocks … Pons also is an elite shot-blocker with the valuable ability to keep the ball in play, often even batting balls forward to lead breaks in the other direction. Sometimes his fantastic speed would even allow him to finish the break with a spectacular dunk.
Pons certainly gave NBA Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins a run for his money with the "Human Highlight Film" nickname. Pons' problem: staying on the court.
Battling an array of injuries, Pons played just four games in the French third division NM1 with the French basketball academy Centre Federal du Basket-Ball (CFBB) over the two seasons 2014-15 and 2015-16. That made it all the more exciting to see that Pons would be playing for France in Zaragoza in the summer of 2016 - along with the talented trio of Jaylen Hoard, Ivan Fevrier and Olivier Sarr.
This would be the second time the international community would see Pons as he teamed up with Killian Tillie, Frank Ntilikina and Adam Mokoka to win the title at the FIBA U16 European Championship 2014 - albeit with Pons being a year younger than the rest of that 1998-born generation. Pons ended up averaging 3.8 points and 1.6 rebounds - showing a glimpse of what he could do in the first game against Denmark with 12 points, 5 rebounds and 2 blocks.
Fast forward to Zaragoza and 2016 and Pons had scouts anxious to see what he could do after all the injuries. France were making their third straight appearance in the U17 World Cup.
France opened the tournament against Korea and it was the Jaylen Hoard show as he evened the competition’s single-game scoring record with 41 points in a 90-84 overtime loss. Those hoping to see Pons shine were disappointed as he played just 5 minutes with 0 shot attempts, 1 rebound and 1 turnover.
He woke up in the game against Bosnia and Herzegovina with 22 points on 8-of-10 shooting including 3-of-5 three-pointers to go with 2 rebounds, 1 assist and 1 steal - all in just 14 minutes after which he fouled out. But Pons was heating up with some dynamic dunks against a physically overmatched Balkan team.
Pons threw down a couple more nice dunks against Dominican Republic, picking up 10 points and 6 rebounds in 16 minutes. And he followed that with 11 points - including two more three-pointers - 4 rebounds and his first block in France's third straight win, defeating Finland in the Round of 16.
The game against Lithuania
And then came the game - the Quarter-Finals against Lithuania.
The Lithuanians jumped out to a 8-0 lead and Pons was subbed out after 4 minutes with just 2 misses and France down 10-2. Lithuania rolled on to lead 16-2 and it was 25-10 after 10 minutes. Pons came back to start the second quarter and blocked a shot on the first Lithuanian possession, followed by an offensive rebound, steal and two free throws. He added a second block but was forced out midway through the second quarter with two fouls and Lithuania up 29-19. The French were down 38-26 at intermission.
Pons came up with a big block and massive breakaway dunk and then added a steal and France were within 40-38 when he picked up his third foul with 5:34 left in the third. The French defense held tight and even pulled ahead briefly before trailing 48-46 after 30 minutes.
Pons re-entered the game after more than 2 minutes played in the final frame and Lithuania having pulled away a bit at 56-50. Pons picked up his fourth foul just 4 seconds back onto the court. But this time he stayed on the floor with 7:39 minutes left in regulation.
And that's when the Pons magic happened.
He came up with another block and then hit a three-pointer to pull the French within 58-56. He followed that a dunk that sent the French bench and the spectators crazy. From the right wing, he drove using his dominant left hand and launched himself like a rocket for a thunderous two-handed dunk to tie the game 58-58. The game would go to overtime knotted at 63-63.
In the extra session, Pons entered FIBA U17 Basketball World Cup legend status with a dunk for the ages. Pons grabbed the defensive rebound and raced ahead and gave it up to Fevrier who tossed up an alley-oop pass which Pons had to slightly reach back to catch and then throw down with a Lithuania player below him.
Twitter may have gotten to the brink of overload by that point.
"AIR FRANCE PONS!!!", "Pons might not be from this galaxy" and "Pons isn't human" were just a couple of the comments. Even NBA draft guru Jonathan Givony, who has seen more than his fair share of basketball tweeted: "French wing Yves Pons doing some freakish things in this France-Lithuania game. Had two of the best dunks I've ever seen live."
French wing Yves Pons doing some freakish things in this France-Lithuania game. Had two of the best dunks I've ever seen live. #fibau17— Jonathan Givony (@DraftExpress) June 30, 2016
Suspense remained high in the game with Lithuania surging ahead 73-67 with a minute left. Hoard made a jumper and then converted a three-point play with 12 seconds left to pull within one point. Lithuania turned the ball over and France had the chance to win with Hoard driving to the lane only to have Grantas Vasiliauskas step in and draw the charge and win the game.
Pons would end up with 11 points, 6 rebounds, 1 assist, 2 steals and 4 blocks in the loss. France would go on to go on to thrash Korea in the rematch by 58 points in the Classification 5-8 and then lose to Canada in the Classification 5-6. Pons continued his spectacular play with 12 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals and 3 blocks versus Korea but struggled to just 5 points, 3 rebounds, 1 block and 5 turnovers against Canada as France took sixth place.
Pons would fall victim to more injuries in 2016-17, playing on six games in the NM1 French league, though he did wow spectators at the Adidas Next Generation Tournament in Kaunas. In 2017, he left Europe to play college basketball with University of Tennessee.
The Vols fans fell in love with the same things that FIBA U17 World Cup spectators saw in Zaragoza in 2016. Pons’ biggest season came in 2019-20 when he averaged 10.8 points, 5.4 rebounds, 1.1 assists and 2.4 blocks. Pons was named the 2020 All-SEC Defensive Player of the Year. He decided to forego his final year of eligibility in 2021 but went undrafted in the 2021 NBA Draft. He played for Memphis in the NBA Summer League and ended up signing with the Grizzlies on a two-way contract for the NBA and the G-League.
For a few days in the summer of 2016 - especially in the game against Lithuania - Yves Pons had the world holding their collective breath waiting for greatness. Let's see if he can do it again.
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