If you have been around French basketball long enough, you probably heard about Centre Federal de Basketball (called CFBB or PFBB), which used to be called INSEP. Indeed, it is based in France’s center for sports excellence in Paris, which works just like the Australian Institute of Sports that hosts the NBA Academy. The program is ran by the French Basketball Federation and welcomes players that have been through the entire federal selection process: playing in the French department’s tournament, the CIZ - which features the best u15 players from the South West, South East, East, North and Paris regions - and then the National Basketball Camp. Its alumni feature a majority of France NBAers : Rudy Gobert, Evan Fournier, Jaylen Hoard, Théo Malédon, Killian Tillie for those currently under contract, Tony Parker and Boris Diaw being the most prominent figures. Once they enroll with CFBB, the trainees can either play with the U16 team which competes in the national U18 championship or with the U18 team which plays in Nationale Masculine 1, the third and almost fully professional division in France.

There it is a whole different world for players who are not even 18 and have to compete against academy graduate and veteran professionals, who benefit from much more physicality and experience. The program has been used to winless seasons, counting only 5 wins from the 15/16 to 20/21 season. Fournier, who joined CFBB from 2007 to 2009, admitted in a pre-draft documentary that the transition from dominating 1 or 2 years older competition to struggling to win a single game has been tough on him. However things are changing for Coach Lamine Kebé’s protégés, over 12 games the young team has already bagged 3 wins and, on average, only loses by 5 points. They proceeded to win back-to-back against Avignon-Pontet - in an overtime game at home - and Besançon, two teams that are struggling to launch their season. And by the beginning of November they managed to beat number five seed Boulogne-sur-Mer on their own floor, making the bench erupt as the referee called the end of the game.

These games gave us a good glance into this talented group as the injuries have allowed role players to move up the rotation and shifted the offensive duties onto players who might have seen less playing time. Rayan Rupert and Melvin Ajinca, respectively the son of Thierry and nephew of Alexis (NOLA, Charlotte, Dallas, Toronto), have had a lot of playing time during the first games but were injured during the first wins. This allowed players like Brena-Chemille, Bouzidi (injured against Avignon) and Fibleuil to get more offensive touches and responsibilities. The group can also count on a trio of big men featured in the U16 and U18 FIBA challengers this summer with Hamon-Crespin, Jacques and Correa. Let me introduce to you the players that caught my eye in the early season.

Noah Penda (05) – F

Stats : 12 games played, 14 PTS wit h 57% 2FG and 48%FG, 7.4 RBD (3.2 off. rebounds), 2.4 AST, 2.5 STL (!) and 2.8 TOV playing 33 minutes.

Before we talk about his basketball and physical skill set, lets take a minute to contextualize Noah Penda’s situation : at 16 years old he is at the forefront of a team playing against grown men who are physically more developed and more experienced and it does not show. Penda is playing like a veteran : he makes the good cuts, stays in the dunker spot until the very last moment, steals on the passing lane and does not shy away from rebounds despite is already heavy offensive load. His main selling point as of now is his body : he is 1.96 m/6-5, two cm taller than when he entered CFBB and looks like he weights around 90 kg / 198 lbs with an already muscular body. Some of the observers even pointed out that the lack of recognition amongst scouts might come from him not fitting the stereotype of the skinny prospect, like Maledon, Hayes or Fournier were at his age. However he is not a player counting only on raw power but possesses a very good lateral mobility, allowing to guard 1 to 4. If you watch Noah plays this year you will most likely see him lock opponents’ point guard up. As stated before, Penda already displays an above average basketball IQ on both side of the floor. You can catch him driving past defenders from the three point line but also patiently waiting in the dunker spot for his man to help on the drive and finish with an easy lay-up. Defensively, he makes excellent off-ball reads which translates into 2.5 steals per game, placing him in the top 10 of the division alongside Rupert, Bran-Chemille and Ajinça. You can top everything with quite good efficiency stats, Penda scores 1.3 PPS with a 56%TS, has a good ball handling and just to finish on a high note, grabs 3.2 offensive rebounds per game (2nd in the league, at 6-5). This guy is 16…
Obviously he also has weaknesses, but these are not really a problem at the moment with all the little things he does so well. His mid-range shot and overall pull-up game is not elite yet, he does better on floaters closer to the rim. He shoots at 30% from three, but mostly from catch & shoot and is not able to create his own shot yet, the form however is good. While we see him dunk aggressively on transition, we can point out a lack of explosiveness when facing taller players in the post. Lastly, we have seen him lose the ball with difficult long passes when his team had the opportunity to close the game with under 5 seconds left.

Mael Hamon-Crespin (04) – PF/C

Stats : 12 games played, 9.8 PTS with 37.7%FG, 6.3 RBD, 1.3 AST and 2 STL in 34 minutes.

You probably saw Mael Hamon-Crespin play in the 2021 U18 Challenger alongside Kimany Houinsou, Ryan Rupert, Melvin Ajinça and Darryl Doualla where he started all 5 five games. Hamon-Crespin is amongst the team leaders with Rupert and is a do-it-all player who shows more on the court than in the stats box. The young power forward is apparently drawing some attention from colleges and has shown his value for the team by posting the second best efficiency numbers although only being a 3rd or 4th option on offense. Mael is developing into a big that can stretch the floor with good mobility and promising shooting performances. He is mostly used as a screener for pin down in the paint or around the three point where he can pop out and display a nice shooting form. Even though he had a 3-5 from deep burst against Besançon, his percentage are still too low (25% from 3) for a player that is essentially a spot up shooter. He also needs to be stronger when he sets screens, so that the ball handler can get more space after the roll and attack the rim/feed him the short pass. From this point of view, seeking a role in the NCAA could help him develop physically while getting a decent playing time to work on his shoot.

Melvin Ajinça (04) - SF

7 games played, 14.3 PTS with 36.4%FG and 20.2%3PM, 3.1 RBD, 1.9 AST, 2.3 STL in 31 minutes.

Ajinça was also in the French U18 team this summer after joining CFBB player two years ago and honestly disappointed me. Expectations were quite high regarding his name, his uncle Alexis who played in the NBA for 9 years and in French 1st division, and his extraordinary physical tools. Because although disappointing offensively, Melvin has elite athleticism which directly translate on defense. He is announced to be 2.01 m / 6-7, with extremely long arms which allow him to defend most guards, thanks to a very good reactivity, as well as stretch 4s. He is most likely to become an elite defender within his generation, he makes good defensive read off the ball allowing him to steal the ball in the passing lanes and finish with an easy lay up. Offensively, he shows an above average ability to separate from his defender with a side step or step back and create open shots. However his shooting form is a big question mark  and seems to change a lot from one game to another, even from catch & shoot and pull up shots. His shot’s arc is quite high but there is something strange in the release, making it seems like it is easier for him to shoot long 2s’ pull ups than C&S 3s. His shooting volume from long range is extremely high (7.9 attempts, the same number than from 2) over the seven first games, while only 20.2% of these shots. With 0.9 PPS with a high USG% he is amongst the least efficient player in the division. Neither is he creating for other players, with an inclination to dribble excessively, leading to 24 second shot clock violation. As of today it would take a club at least one season to make him ready for very high level professional basketball, but the defensive upside and his shooting flashes might convince European GMs.