His home country still prefers dribbling on a soccer field, but Guerschon Yabusele’s basketball youth in France wasn’t dramatically different from a typical American kid’s.
The 6-foot-8 power forward — who was among a group of mostly second-round draft prospects in New Orleans on Monday for predraft workouts with the Pelicans — was taught the same fundamentals. He learned to play facing the basket and with his back to it.
And he watched a lot of NBA games.
“It’s very, very popular,” he said. “Everybody’s trying to go to the NBA. That’s everybody’s dream. It’s the best league. In France, I think everybody watches the NBA.”
A pair of French prospects — Yabusele and combo guard Isaia Cordinier — were at the Pelicans practice facility Monday and are closing in on that NBA dream. Yabusele is projected as a late first- or early second-round pick in the June 23 draft. Cordinier is seen as a likely second-rounder.
If both ultimately make a roster, they’ll join a growing list of French talents to make the leap to basketball’s premier league.
Eleven French players were on NBA rosters this season, including Pelicans center Alexis Ajinca. That’s more than any nation outside North America — even without including Chicago Bulls forward Joakim Noah, who was born in New York but holds citizenship in the United States, France and Sweden.
Those growing numbers aren’t by accident. French basketball “translates well to the NBA,” said ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla, who specializes in evaluating foreign draft prospects.
“It’s an athletic level of play,” he said. “It’s not the best level of play (among European nations) — that would probably be Spain — but there’s a lot of athleticism in the French league.”
Yabusele and Cordinier are examples of it.
The 260-pound Yabusele “wears his weight well,” Fraschilla said, and has the look of a bruiser, but he’s most at home on the perimeter. After Monday’s workouts, he showed off the outside shooting touch that made him a 42.6 percent 3-point shooter this season in the French League.
“I’m comfortable with both,” he said. “Most of the time, I play facing the basket but, with my body, I know I’ve got to do some post-up, and I’m comfortable with the post-up, too.”
Yabusele — who said Pelicans coaches were impressed with his shooting and asked him about his comfort guarding perimeter players — said he’s comfortable defending on the wing. That versatility is the reason Fraschilla said Yabusele projects to be drafted somewhere between 23rd and 35th. The Pelicans have the 39th and 40th picks in the second round, in addition to the No. 6 pick in the first.
“He’s a prototype modern small-ball power forward,” Fraschilla said. “Everybody’s looking for Draymond Green. Five years ago, he would have been classified as a tweener. But guys like him, their stock has risen because of the way the league is going to the small-ball power forward.”
Cordinier is less NBA-ready, Fraschilla said, though he’s more likely to be available when the Pelicans make their second-round selections. The 6-5, 180-pound combo guard has “a little Austin Rivers in his game,” Fraschilla said, and at 19 years old “would have been a heck of a college freshman this year.”
“He plays like an American,” Fraschilla said. “What I mean by that is, he’s got flair to his game. He plays hard. He loves to dunk. He’s a good athlete, but he’s just a project right now. He has a chance to be an NBA player. It’s not a given.”
France has, at least, helped prepare Cordinier for the opportunity. He compared the French game to “small U.S. basketball” and said French players draw from the NBA and the Euroleague to combine “athleticism and basketball IQ.”
“The more there is French players in the NBA, the more you want to be in the NBA, too, as a French guy,” Cordinier said. “It’s a lot of motivation.”