How unique journey of Alex Sarr — the 7-foot ‘Mr. International’ — could lead to No. 1 pick

It’s only fitting that Alex Sarr was first approached by a basketball coach as a young child walking the aisles of a supermarket. After all, his diverse on-court talents read like a shopping list for the ideal modern NBA player: A few ounces of Rudy Gobert, a quart of Giannis Antetokounmpo … the tiniest dash of Kevin Durant. Yep, there’s a reason Sarr is firmly in the mix to be selected first overall in Wednesday’s 2024 NBA Draft.

The man who had the foresight to jumpstart Sarr’s basketball career was Vincent Mbassi, a Cameroonian who settled in the Bordeaux region of France — best known for its breathtaking wines. Like grapes on the vine, Mbassi knew that Sarr, then just a young boy perusing the grocery store’s offerings with his older brother and their father, would need cultivation and nurturing at his Kameet Basketball Academy, which had already seen the likes of Boris Diaw and Evan Fournier walk through its doors.

Aymeric Parker, a French photojournalist who grew up playing with Diaw and is extremely close with the Sarr family, called Mbassi “the wizard of basketball” in Bordeaux, and couldn’t give him enough credit for establishing training methods that prepared local athletes for the world’s highest levels.

“[Mbassi said] I’m going to push them to the limits, just like the way the Americans do to their athletes in D-I or high school basketball, elite basketball,” Parker told CBS Sports. “But it was new at that time. It was new.”

You don’t have to look far to see a recent success story. Olivier Sarr, Alex’s older brother, went from Bordeaux to Wake Forest to Kentucky to the NBA — where he played 46 games over three seasons with the Oklahoma City Thunder before rupturing his Achilles tendon in Game 3 of the G League Finals in April.

No matter where Alex, a 7-foot unicorn who just turned 19 a couple months ago, is drafted on Wednesday, he will undoubtedly become the next — if not the best — basketball player to come from the region. The only question is just how high his ceiling will be, but Sarr and his father, Massar, have carefully charted a basketball course to optimize his preparation for the NBA.

After starting in Mbassi’s academy, Sarr moved to Spain to join Real Madrid at the age of 14. When the COVID pandemic hit in 2020, he moved across to the globe to become a part of the Overtime Elite Academy in Atlanta — interestingly enough, the same city whose team holds the No. 1 pick in this year’s draft. After two seasons there, the journey continued to Australia, where Sarr averaged 20 points, nine rebounds and three blocks per 36 minutes for the Perth Wildcats of the NBL. The constant league-hopping strayed from the traditional path of a French athlete, which usually involves going through INSEP, the country’s most famous basketball academy, before playing in domestic pro leagues.

“I think Alex had first a French perspective on basketball, then the European perspective, then an American perspective through Overtime … and then an Australian,” Parker told CBS Sports. “So he is like Mr. International to me.”

It’s hard to imagine any high-level prospect accumulating that level of diverse international experience by the age of 19, and when you combine that with Sarr’s raw talent and abilities that jump off the screen, you could be looking at the best player in the 2024 class.

At the very least, Sarr should easily slide into a shot-blocking, rim-running role similar to what we saw from Dallas Mavericks rookie Derek Lively II this past season. Sarr’s rim protection skills are elite, with timing, verticality and instincts to be one of the league’s most imposing defenders early in his career.

His defensive ceiling is raised, however, when you look at how well he moves his feet for his size. While he’ll likely be most effective in drop coverage to start, his ability to stick with guards in pick-and-roll situations has been impressive. Sarr allowed just 0.52 points per possession when defending isolation plays, per Synergy Sports, which was in the 88th percentile in the NBL.

Sarr’s immediate defensive impact will be paired with seemingly unlimited potential on the offensive side. His elite athleticism allows him to catch lobs and finish with power above the rim, but the more intriguing aspects of his game come with his shot creation and ball-handling. Far from a finished product in the area, Sarr has displayed enough on the perimeter to make you think it could become a game-changing part of his arsenal down the road.

Uh huh. There’s that dash of Kevin Durant.

Even if Sarr’s 3-point shot never fully develops — he shot 30% on two attempts per game in his season with Perth — his other talents can still put him at the All-Star level. But, if he starts knocking them down consistently, then we’re talking about a truly special two-way player in his prime. There will likely be a few mechanical tweaks from his development coaches, but the confidence and footwork seem to be there on Sarr’s jumper.

In addition to the skill set, Sarr has gained maturity through his basketball journey, learning at an early age how to carry himself like a professional. He also has a fiery inner competitiveness — fostered by an unrelenting itch to be better than his older brother — and a high basketball IQ developed by playing multiple styles and against different levels of physicality already in his young career. That means no matter what NBA system he’s thrown into, he should have a good chance at thriving.

“He’s gonna adapt,” Parker told CBS Sports. “Because he adapted from Real Madrid to Overtime to Australia. This kid is a chameleon. The smarter the player, the better your chances are it’s gonna be a good fit no matter what.”

This isn’t your typical NBA Draft prospect with one or two years of amateur experience. He and his family have executed their globetrotting game plan perfectly, and it’s about to pay off with a multi-million dollar contract followed by what they all hope is a long and illustrious NBA career.

“The skills, he has them. Size, he has it. Shooting abilities, he has them. Athletic abilities, he has them. Mindset, he has it. Competitiveness, he has it,” Parker told CBS Sports. “He has everything.”

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