PARIS (AP) — Darius Pollock is hitting 3-pointers on a court behind the centuries-old Saint Paul church near Place de la Bastille and its famed column.

The 20-year-old Parisian is one of many players who can be found on courts around the French capital any day of the week. And at the center of basketball conversations in the country is Victor Wembanyama’s rise to NBA stardom.

“It has unlocked something in France,” Pollock said.

He’s not wrong.

Basketball’s popularity is rising — it could skyrocket during the Paris Olympics with the anticipation surrounding the French men’s team. More kids are signing up for teams as the country churns out top NBA draft picks.

France has produced NBA players before, the most famous being point guard Tony Parker — a four-time NBA champion whose No. 9 jersey was retired by the San Antonio Spurs. Minnesota Timberwolves center Rudy Gobert was this season’s NBA Defensive Player of the Year.

But now it’s in overdrive.

Last year there was Wembanyama — a generational talent who as expected went No. 1 in the draft. Two more young Frenchmen — Zaccharie Risacher, Alexandre Sarr — are expected to be top picks Wednesday. They might even go Nos. 1 and 2. A third, Tidjane Salaün, is projected to be selected high in the first round.

“I’m very proud of them. It makes it seem like the NBA dream is possible,” Antonin Guezel, a local basketball player in Paris, told The Associated Press. “Some of these talents grew up here, Victor is from the Paris area.”

Female French players haven’t yet had the same impact on the WNBA, but they are trending up. In April’s draft, two French players were selected — Carla Leite (No. 9, Dallas) and Leila Lacan (No. 10, Connecticut).

The 21-year-old Guezel hones his skills at Glacière, a court crammed under an overhead subway station in the 13th arrondissement (district), and one of many outdoor courts scattered around Paris.

There are about 750,000 people registered with basketball clubs in France — nearly 70,000 more than two years ago and an increase of 170,000 since 2014. And that’s just the official count. Like in the United States, plenty of hoopers just grab a ball and find a court to shootaround or play in a pickup game.

Basketball — “le Basket” — has never been more popular here, sports historian Lindsay Krasnoff points out.

“On all the courts I pass now, there is always someone playing,” said Krasnoff, author of “Basketball Empire.”

Seeing teenagers around Paris wearing NBA jerseys and a basketball under their arm is now a common sight, she added.

One popular spot can be found behind Halle Carpentier — Jemmapes — where the nearby high-rise flats tower over the courts near the popular Saint-Martin canal. Players sit on the sidelines, waiting their turn, as 4-on-4 games take place — first to 21 points win, or first to 16 on more crowded days.

With the fences practically just arm’s reach from the court, Jemmapes resembles the iconic West 4th Street courts in New York City. Trash talking is encouraged and fouls are rarely called.

“If you call a foul here, you are weak. So you shut your mouth,” said Lina Redjem, the only woman among more than 30 players waiting to get on the court.

France has a proud history when it comes to basketball.

The country boasts of holding the first recorded basketball game in Europe during the 1890s at the Trévise court, near Paris’ famed Pigalle nightlife spots.

But the foundation of the country’s talent pipeline can be traced back to 1975 when the Paris-based National Institute of Sport, Expertise, and Performance — known as INSEP — started training elite athletes across several sports.

Basketball was among them.

Parker went from being INSEP’s rising star to NBA Finals MVP in 2007. Ten years earlier, Parker’s ability left coaches awestruck.

“We all said ‘this guy is not from the same planet,’” Bernard Faure, a junior teams coach at INSEP, told The AP. “Leadership, athleticism, precision. He had everything.”

Detroit Pistons guard Evan Fournier and former NBA players Boris Diaw and Ronny Turiaf also came through INSEP — as did the 18-year-old Salaün, a 6-foot 9-forward.

“Our system has proved itself,” said Gilles Thomas, INSEP’s basketball director. “Exceptional players are discovered very early. Our system of grid detection makes it really rare for us to miss a talent.”

INSEP has its own team. Last month, the INSEP boys team lost the EuroLeague junior final by one point to Real Madrid.

Players graduate from INSEP and can start competing professionally for French teams when still in their teens.

“The ideal path to the NBA is (playing) in France. Our talents play against professionals at a very young age,” Faure said.

INSEP scours the country and its overseas territories to bring in the top 36 boys and 36 girls for training camps. Around 20 teenagers are selected.

INSEP’s model has also helped club academies better develop young players.

Wembanyama’s formative club, Paris-based Nanterre, occasionally loaned him to INSEP’s team. Wembanyama then went to ASVEL near Lyon — where Parker is club president — before joining Paris-based Metropolitans 92.

The 19-year-old Risacher won the French league’s best young player award last season while playing for JL Bourg.

The team’s coach, Frédéric Fauthoux, says the French brand of basketball “is very athletic,” which can ease the transition to the NBA or college basketball in the U.S.

“That’s what separates us from our European rivals and connects us to the style played in America,” he said. ”We know how to develop them into tall and versatile players that the NBA craves. … Young French players experience the French championship, which is very rough and athletic, and play against European teams who are much more tactical.”

David Kahn agrees. The 62-year-old American is the president at Paris Basketball club and was formerly president of the NBA’s Timberwolves.

Risacher stands out, Kahn said, because he has “a more modern skillset with an NBA frame.”

Kahn believes basketball’s popularity in France may soon rival soccer — a tall task with the likes of superstar Kylian Mbappé leading Les Bleus.

“Some kids that might have grown up thinking about playing football now start thinking about basketball,” Kahn told The AP at his team’s offices. “This will continue year after year with French basketball producing this kind of talent.”

The upcoming Paris Games will provide a huge opportunity for French basketball enthusiasts to win over even more fans — and future players.

France narrowly lost the last Olympic men’s final while the women took home the bronze at the Tokyo Games.

Neither team has won an Olympic gold medal in basketball but with Wembanyama on the men’s roster, expectations are soaring.

“These Olympics will be yet another sort of jumping up, trampoline effect,” Kahn said. “There will be an outsized attention placed on the French basketball team.”




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