BROOKLYN — Victor Wembanyama overshadowed Bilal Coulibaly and Rayan Rupert on the red carpet before the 2023 NBA Draft. Cameras and media members surrounded the generational talent’s 7-foot-4 frame, and kids screamed his name. While the 18-year-old French phenom has sparked a basketball renaissance in France, Coulibaly and Rupert demonstrate a larger movement in French basketball that could have a lasting impact on the NBA.
French heritage night at the draft 🇫🇷
— Nicolas Batum (@nicolas88batum) June 22, 2023
There is a deep history of basketball in France that existed way before Wembanyama, Coulibaly and Rupert.
In 1960, Jean-Claude Lefebvre, also known as the ‘Eiffel Rifle’ was the first Frenchman to be drafted in the NBA, but he never appeared in the league, opting to stay in France and prepare for the Olympics instead. In 1997, 37 years later, Sacramento Kings’ guard Tariq Abdul-Wahad became the first player from France to step foot on an NBA court.
Since Abdul-Wahad, 34 French-born players have played in the NBA, second most among non-US countries (Canada is first). There has been a continued French pipeline into the league with Tony Parker and Rudy Gobert headlining the previous two decades.
Both Coulibaly (selected seventh overall by Indiana) and Rupert (43rd by Portland) grew up playing basketball in the French system and were impacted by the country’s basketball history. Rupert attended INSEP Academy on the outskirts of Paris, and Coulibaly played for the youth team Levallois Sporting Club Basket in the north-western suburbs of the nation’s capital.
When Coulibaly was a child, his father often watched the New York Knicks, so he grew up admiring Carmelo Anthony’s jab-step.
Rupert’s late father Thierry, a former Euro League player and captain of the French National team, inspired him to start playing basketball when he was three years old. Rupert also grew up admiring top French players like Parker, Nicolas Batum and Evan Fournier.
Coulibaly is an athletic, defensive-minded wing and thus resembles a prototypical French player. But he thinks he’s a little different. “I can score the ball when I want to. That’s not something you really work on, that’s just a feeling. I’m kind of different.”
Author Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff, whose book “Basketball Empire: France and the Making of a Global NBA and WNBA” is coming out in September, says, “The French focus is on producing holistic basketball players who can play pretty much any position, who are taught to play with a team-first attitude. It’s not about the amount of points that you score, but it is also about the defense and how you help the team in other ways.”
Rupert takes after the French style as well. He’s a long wing that thrives on the defensive side of the ball and is agile and athletic.
“I fit the French style,” Rupert said. “But I can adapt in the U.S. [style of] basketball.”
Coulibaly and Rupert diverted paths after youth ball. Rupert turned professional in 2019 and played for Centre Fédéral and Pôle France of the NM1 French league before playing in New Zealand for the Breakers this past season. Coulibaly, on the other hand, turned professional for Metropolitans 92 in 2021.
In the lead-up to the Draft, Coulibaly rapidly climbed mock draft boards. Entering the season, he wasn’t even on the Metropolitans 92 senior team. He started with the program’s U-21 team and played so well that he earned himself a promotion to the senior team. Now, he’s a lottery pick in the NBA Draft.
“It’s been so fast,” he said with a laugh, recalling this past year. “It was kind of crazy, a little bit surprising, but that’s what I wanted. I’m just happy.”
Rupert had a different path to the NBA. He was projected as a late first-round to early-second-round pick for the past year before being selected 43rd overall by Portland. Unlike Coulibaly, who finished his season just a week before the draft, Rupert hasn’t played a competitive game since March.
“During the season, I was focused step-by-step,” Rupert said. “I’ve been in the States three months now, and I had a lot of workouts [for teams].”
Coulibaly and Rupert have risen to the NBA alongside Wembanyama at various stages of their journeys.
Coulibaly played alongside Wembanyama with Mets 92 and saw firsthand as the Wembanyama phenomenon captivated France. As NBA scouts tuned in for Wembanyama, little did they know, Coulibaly would emerge as another top prospect in this year’s draft.
“At the beginning of the year, let’s be honest, people were coming for [Victor],” Coulibaly says. “They just saw me [and said] ‘This kid’s kind of good too.’ So he helped me a lot.
“That’s my brother,” he says.
“Wemby’s more than a teammate, that’s like my brother.”
Bilal Coulibaly on Metropolitans 92 teammate Victor Wembanyama. pic.twitter.com/ruyez8kqmF
— NBA (@NBA) June 23, 2023
Wembanyama didn’t have as direct an impact on Rupert. The two played together for the U15 French National team and Wembanyama played some games with Rupert at INSEP Academy. Rupert still thinks of Wembanyama and Coulibaly as “his guys.” After Wembanyama was drafted, Rupert was one of the first people he embraced.
The 2023 NBA Draft may forever be remembered as the Victor Wembanyama Draft. But Coulibaly and Rupert highlight the steady influx of talent from France that could flow into the NBA for years to come, and they’re excited.
“Maybe one day we will be the best,” Rupert said about the future of French basketball.
“It will continue, man,” Coulibaly said about the presence of French players in the NBA. “The French national team might be dangerous. It’s going to be crazy.”