“A long, long time ago…” This is how fairytales for children begin, but it could also lead off the status of the French League. So, a long, long time ago, French teams were big names in the European context: CSP Limoges won the Euroleague, ASVEL qualified for the Final Four, and Pau-Orthez was the most regular participant in major European competitions. Players like Antoine Rigaudeau, Michael Young and Delaney Rudd made French fans dream and the sportive results built ProA a good international reputation. But this has changed since then.
Young French players today dream more about the NBA than the Euroleague, and yearly the best young prospects leave the ProA while most are still projects at the European level. This year, Alexis Ajinca and Nicolas Batum preferred to move overseas and risk a year in the NBDL rather than stay with their European club. So it is no surprise that France currently has nearly as many NBA players (Ajinca, Batum, Diaw, Diawara, Gelabale, Mahinmi, Noah, Tony Parker, Petro, Pietrus, Turiaf) as Euroleague players (Gomis, Sangaré, Koffi, Diot, Badiane, Leloup, Tchicamboud, Julian, Samnick, Morandais, Parker). But let’s check what the upcoming season brings.
The Big 4: STB Le Mans and SLUC Nancy will play in the Euroleague this season and both have recruited heavily by French standards. With J.D. Jackson as head coach, the all-youth years are over in the Sarthe region, and the new players are all more or less experienced on the European level. To bring Dee Spencer back to France as well as signing Euroleague players Bluthenthal and J.P. Batista was seen as enormous for a French team. The addition of Pape Badiane in the paint and the multi-versatile Maleye N’Doye are even more than a cherry atop the cake for the team. Now with such a loaded roster, the clear goal is the French Championship.
SLUC Nancy also went big in recruiting, with the addition of Rod Benson, John Cox and Lamayn Wilson, even if the names sound less flashy Le Mans’ moves. But a team core built around the Greer brothers, Wild Thing Julian and the new French backcourt composed of Tchicamboud and Morandais, who will play in France for the first time in his professional career, is pretty strong. And if Roger Zaki plays in the regular season like he started the preseason, defending the title is not an impossible task.
ASVEL Villeurbanne is probably the only team that can compete with the two Euroleague participants in terms of budget and player material. With the experience of Vincent Collet as head coach and the newly added firepower of Eric Campbell, J.R. Reynolds and Amara “The Admiral” Sy, it looks like the self-declared Euroleague wild-card team can finally battle for the title it’s been seeking for a long time. It remains to be seen how this newly composed roster will harmonize. Chorale de Roanne tries to return to the old days with the reappearance of Aaron Harper. Additionally, some proven ProA players joined the team while the coaching staff once again tries to hit the jackpot in the annual college lottery by signing some rookies.
NT members’ teams: It sounds surprising, but it were Vichy and Cholet who featured a significant number of national team players for the unsuccessful Eurobasket 2009 qualifiers this summer. Now both must integrate these guys at high speed in order to be competitive for a season that begins in just 10 days. Besides the French de Colo and Marquis, Cholet also features Iranian national team player Samad Bahrami and is somehow unique on the European scene with this signing. Besides those, the rest of the team is composed of more or less known NCAA players and some promising young guys. For Vichy, the situation is quite different as the roster is composed of four US boys and French rotation players. Despite being national team members, Issa, Gradit and Soliman won’t be the superstars that take Vichy to another level and success therefore depends a lot on the four American-born players.
The all-youth teams: Pau-Lacq-Orthez – to be correct – is attempting to rebuild its team around a very interesting core of young players this season. Ludo Vaty already knows ProA, but some youngsters like Fernando Raposo and Thomas Heurtel are ready to gain major minutes at the senior level. Hiram Fuller knows the league as well so he can teach rookies Jameson Curry and Josh Duncan how life goes in the Bearn.
The All-America teams: These teams are the most difficult to rank, as all rely greatly on their four alloted US-born players. STB Le Havre finished as high as 5th place last season with such a roster and this season looks similar as after the Americans are only prospects from the local youth program. Hyères-Toulon is a bit different, as they’re build around the comebacker Mous Sonko and veteran Vincent “Bang Bang” Massingue to guide their import players.
Of this group of teams, BCM Gravelines has aligned the most common names during the summer time. Yannick Bokolo will lead the group and Cyril Akpomedah, J.K. Edwards and Tony Stanley try to fire up the scoreboards in the traditional Sportica Arena. Chalon preferred to sign quality US guys in Brian Boddicker and Zack Wright and surrounded them with experienced Frenchmen and some younger prospects; the results in the preseason look promising so far.
SIG Strasbourg signed former Roanne sharpshooter Brion Rush and also added some players that know how ProA works. It looks all very good on paper, but now it is the team’s job to bring this to fruition. Orléans looks a bit like the “nouveau riche” squad of the league. Laurent Sciarra, Brian Greene and Adrien Moerman appear to be the most promising recruits, even if the French PG is already out with an injury in the beginning of the season.
Who?: The two teams promoted from ProB, Rouen and Besançon, could also be ranked in the All-America teams category. Still, their rosters are even more unknown to me when it comes to discussing the US players they signed than for the rest of the league. We’ll see during the season how these teams play and there may always be surprises coming from them. But it is still difficult for me to assess them at the moment.