Thursday, June 13, 2024

2024 NBA Draft: Meet Tidjane Salaun, the French prospect who could end up being the best player in the class

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One look at Tidjane Salaun’s name likely elicits confusion and frustration from American audiences incapable of summoning the dialectal gymnastics necessary for proper pronunciation. If you’re an NBA fan, however, you should probably become familiar with the name, because Salaun’s huge leap in the pre-draft process has him poised to be a top-10 selection in the 2024 NBA Draft at the end of the month.

The back of your linguistic flashcard should read: “tee-JOHN sahl-OWN”

Better known as a pioneering film movement of the 1950s, the French New Wave could also refer to the influx of basketball talent from the suddenly prolific country over the past few years. Following the path paved by last year’s No. 1 pick and reigning Rookie of the Year, Victor Wembanyama, Salaun is expected to be selected in the lottery. The top two picks could also be Frenchmen: Alexandre Sarr and Zaccharie Risacher.

The latter two have already received the attention they rightfully deserve, but Salaun — who played for Cholet in Betclic Élite, France’s top division — has flown relatively under the radar despite having the talent and profile to eventually develop into the most accomplished of the three.

“For me, Tidjane is the best prospect of the draft,” said Théo Quintard, a French journalist who covered Salaun with Cholet. “Let’s say we can visualize in maybe 10 years, I think Tidjane will be maybe one of the best players of this draft. Because I think Tidjane has much to show to the world — his real potential. He can develop a lot.”

Quintard’s main reasoning is that while Sarr and Risacher are more developed prospects at the moment, Salun — who’s coming off his first full professional season and doesn’t turn 19 until August — has virtually unlimited potential as a 6-foot-9, 200-pound wing with a sweet shooting stroke and elastic athleticism. He averaged 14 points, six rebounds and two steals per 36 minutes while coming on strong toward the end of the season for Cholet.

One look at the film and you’re quickly convinced of Salaun’s ability to translate to, and eventually thrive in, the modern NBA. His shooting form is pure, suggesting that this season’s 33% mark from 3-point range could easily inch closer to 40% with reps and development. He averaged over a point per possession in catch-and-shoot situations, displaying deep range and proficiency from both above the break and the corners, which bodes well for his future as a floor-spacer at the NBA level.

“The important point to mention about Tidjane is his confidence,” Quintard told CBS Sports. “He can miss three shots, but he will make the next one. He has 100% confidence in his ability. He’s very joyful.”

Even more drool-inducing for NBA scouts is the fact that Salaun has shown the ability to shoot off of movement as well. Nobody will confuse him for Reggie Miller, Rip Hamilton or JJ Redick any time soon, but Salaun is clearly capable of making 3-pointers coming off of screens with a confident ease.

Though he didn’t run a ton of pick-and-pop with Cholet, it’s easy to see how dangerous he could be in that role, particularly when you factor in his ability to get into the paint and finish around the basket when he’s run off the line. Salaun averaged 1.29 points per shot around the rim, per Synergy Sports, a good mark for an 18-year-old playing against stronger, more developed defenders.

That figure was helped by the tremendous threat that he presents in transition. With the length and end-to-end speed to beat defenders down the court, Salaun should get several buckets each game just by getting out on the break. Watch here as he starts in the opposite paint and races down the floor for the finish, showing why he would be a playmaker’s dream teammate.

Salaun also uses his length and basketball IQ to transform into a one-man fast break, playing passing lanes, picking up steals and finishing with his athleticism on the other end.

Defensively, he has some work to do in terms of lateral quickness and strength, but the signs are all there for him to become a plus on that side once he puts everything together. Another area that deserves attention is his shot creation since he gets most of his points off the catch and in transition. Developing go-to moves in the half-court will determine the height of his ceiling, and fortunately, he already recognizes that.

“I would like to improve on my dribble and create more situations for me and for my teammates,” Salaun told reporters last week. “And be more efficient from the 3 and from midrange. I work a lot on my midrange.”  

The scale and speed of his improvement should be bolstered by his determination, which he’s already displayed at such a young age. After a playoff loss to Paris, Salaun — at 18 years old — called out teammates who he didn’t feel were bringing the necessary energy.

“For me, it’s a kind of leadership to say that in front of the media,” Quintard told CBS Sports. “I think it’s somebody who’s confident in his qualities and abilities.”

When you pile up all of Salaun’s physical tools and combine them with work ethic, motor and leadership, it’s easy to see why many experts are projecting him to be taken in the lottery of the June 26 draft. In his latest mock draft, our Kyle Boone has Salaun going to the Charlotte Hornets at No. 6, and there has been significant buzz that the San Antonio Spurs could use the eighth pick to pair Salaun with countryman Wembanyama.

Of course, Wembanyama isn’t exactly the right comp for Salaun in terms of trajectory, but you don’t have to look far to find one. Last year around this time, Wembanyama’s teammate in France, Bilal Coulibaly, began shooting up draft boards in a similar fashion before being drafted at No. 7 overall by the Washington Wizards. While most expected him to require a lot of development time, Coulibaly contributed right away with averages of eight points, four rebounds and two assists in 63 games, including 12 starts.

So, while Salaun is absolutely a work in progress, he might become a household name sooner than you think if he ends up in the right situation. Better keep those pronunciation flashcards handy.

“For Tidjane, it’s a process, step by step,” Quintard told CBS Sports. “The shot is still in progress, athleticism was already present at the beginning. I’m not a scout — I’m just a journalist — but for me, it’s a process and there are not huge weaknesses.”

Looking for more NBA coverage? John Gonzalez, Bill Reiter, Ashley Nicole Moss and special guests dive deep into the league’s biggest storylines daily on the Beyond the Arc podcast.

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