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France basketball’s next wave could be a golden generation

France has four potential first round picks in the 2020 NBA Draft

A collage of Theo Maledon, Killian Hayes, and Malcolm Cazalon.
Theo Maledon, Killian Hayes, and Malcolm Cazalon are all possible first round NBA draft picks for France in 2020.

France has been waiting for its coronation on the global basketball stage since the turn of the millennium. A generation of talent led by Tony Parker, Boris Diaw, and Nic Batum positioned Les Bleus for a run of dominance in international play, but the hype often exceeded the results. France won silver and then gold at Eurobasket in 2011 and 2013, and claimed bronze at the 2014 World Cup, yet the team was left dreaming of something more.

France was on the cusp of glory at this year’s World Cup with a team led by Batum and Rudy Gobert. It shocked Team USA in the quarterfinals behind a masterful performance from Gobert that set France up for a run at gold. Then Argentina delivered a reality check, beating the French decisively in the semifinals with a roster that featured zero NBA players. France would settle for another bronze — a good result but not the recognition it was hoping for.

The good news for France is the pipeline is full of talent. Even as Batum — somehow still only 30 years old despite entering his 12th NBA season — approaches the twilight of his prime, the 27-year-old Gobert has a game that should age well in FIBA play. France also has 21-year-old Knicks guard Frank Ntilikina — who finally lived up to his lottery pick hype in the World Cup — and Sekou Doumbouya, an 18-year-old who wasn’t part of the World Cup roster but who the Pistons drafted at No. 15 overall this past June.

More reinforcements are on the way. It’s possible France could have four first-round picks in the 2020 NBA Draft from players born in 2001, with all of them projected in the top-35 of ESPN’s most recent mock draft. Are the French set for a golden generation? This is the first introduction to France’s next big things.

Theo Maledon is Tony Parker’s prodigy

At just 17 years old, Maledon was a starting point guard in Eurocup for ASVEL, a club in France’s top pro league run by Tony Parker. With Parker as his mentor, Maledon was named the youngest all-star in the French league since 1987 and has established himself as one of the brightest young prospects in the world. We projected him as the No. 3 overall pick in next June’s draft.

At 6’5 with a 6’9 wingspan, Maledon is a big point guard who is already adept at running a team. He does a good job balancing scoring and facilitating, showing patience and vision in the pick-and-roll as the passer while having the length and touch to finish inside when needed. He also does a good job playing with pace and keeping his eyes up in the open floor. Here are six impressive plays from Maledon as a passer:

Maledon doesn’t generate elite power going towards the basket, but is still able to score with floaters near the basket and and as a spot-up shooter. He is easily the most distinguished shooter of France’s young prospects, hitting 45.6 percent from the field, 38.6 percent from three-point range, and 85 percent from the foul line in 62 games with ASVEL this past season.

Defense is another area where Maledon shines. He’s shows good fight getting over screens and sticking with opposing ball handlers, using his big frame and length to contest shots. We’ll let Parker have the last word: “When I see Frank Ntilikina drafted No. 8, Theo is a lot better than him.”

Killian Hayes has rare gifts that make him a lottery talent

Hayes was actually born in Florida but raised in France as the son of De’Ron Hayes, a former Penn State forward who eventually carved out a career in Europe. While Maledon has now passed him in the eyes of some scouts, Hayes has been on NBA radars for a while thanks to his strong play in FIBA tournaments for France’s youth teams. Hayes was named MVP during France’s run to a gold in the U16 European Championships and was the best player on the silver medal team that lost to Cole Anthony and Team USA in the final of the U17 World Cup last summer.

A smooth 6’6 lefty combo guard, Hayes has earned acclaim for his creative halfcourt reads and intrinsic scoring ability. He is a big, poised ball handler who has flashed signs of the vision and downhill athleticism required to eventually become an offensive initiator. Hayes been an effective scorer inside the arc — making 56 percent of his two-pointers during his two years as a pro in France’s top league — while also putting up impressive assist rates. Here are seven clips of Hayes’ skill as a scorer, passer, and defender:

Hayes has also been an impact defensive player throughout his young career, posting big steal and block rates in FIBA tournaments. His biggest weakness is his three-point shot. He’s hovered just below a 30 percent shooter from deep most of his career, but hit only 19.2 percent of his threes over 33 games last season for Cholet.

This is going to be a huge season for Hayes. After playing sparingly for Cholet, he’s moved onto the German league where he’ll play for Ratiopharm Ulm. With a good year, Hayes should be a lottery pick. With a great year, it’s possible the conversation between he and Maledon reignites again.

Malcolm Cazalon is the athletic wing

Cazalon piqued the interest of scouts as a long, athletic wing on France’s silver medal-winning 2018 U17 World Cup team. At 6’6 with a 6’11 wingspan, Cazalon’s speed and above-the-rim hops made him a natural filling the lane in transition with Maledon and Hayes. He was France’s leading scorer at 16.4 points per game (a hair ahead of Hayes) for that U17 team and also averaged three steals per game.

Scouts are waiting for him to take the next step. He struggled to find playing time in France’s top pro league and underwhelmed in the U18 Euro Championships this summer when he was set up to be the star. Cazalon averaged just 11.4 points per game on 38 percent shooting from the field across the seven-game U18 tournament, leading some to question his fitness and approach to the game. Still, an athletic slasher who puts pressure on the rim with this much explosiveness is always going to be considered a high-ceiling prospect. If Cazalon can improve his shooting numbers — typically around 30 percent from three — and consistency as he moves to the Belgium league this year, he’ll have a strong chance to be a first rounder.

Matthieu Gauzin is a speed demon at point guard

Gauzin has yet to log time in France’s top pro league like the three other players on this list, but a breakout weekend at Basketball Without Boarders in February during NBA All-Star Weekend has positioned him as a possible first round pick. ESPN pegged him at No. 35 overall in their 2020 NBA mock daft.

At 6’4, Gauzin is an ultra fast point guard with an aggressive scoring mentality. After being the spark plug off the bench on the 2018 U17 World Cup team, Gauzin averaged 17 points, five rebounds, and five assists per game for Espoirs Le Mans. While he’s is still a developing shooter and has posted high turnover numbers, Gauzin’s coach at Le Mans called him the fastest player he’s seen in 15 years in the business.