At some point during the 2015-16 season, INSEP head coach Jean-Aime Toupane had seen enough from his 14-year-old point guard. Theo Maledon was too good to be on the younger team.
Maledon was moved up to the older squad, where teenagers as old as 19 faced adults in the third division of the professional French league.
The National Institute of Sport, Expertise and Performance (INSEP), a government-funded basketball academy and education program, was one of Maledon’s first steps as a path to the NBA became feasible.
There, he played against athletes twice his age, got professional experience, and teamed up with members of the next generation of French talent including Jaylen Hoard.
Five years later, Maledon and Hoard are teammates once again, this time in the upper echelon of basketball with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
“We’ve been kind of following each other’s basketball paths,” Hoard said. “In France one time I went to his house. We’ve been really close for a long time now, so just finally being able to play with him at this next level is amazing.”
Maledon was the No. 34 pick in the 2020 draft whose rights were traded to the Thunder. Hoard signed a two-way deal with the team in March after playing on the OKC Blue, the Thunder’s G League team.
Their path was paved by French stars who played on INSEP before them, notably Tony Parker, Boris Diaw and Ronny Turiaf.
Parker entered the NBA in 2001. When Diaw was drafted in 2003, Parker had just won his first NBA championship. Turiaf was drafted in 2005, just months after Parker won his second.
Maledon said there’s a generational difference in French basketball culture that stems from those players making it to the NBA.
“It’s something that you see everywhere, where the new generation comes in and sees things differently,” he said. “I know that at first, (there were) only a few that were playing in the NBA, and I feel like thanks to them, for the younger generation it became a better goal and a dream.”
As the culture became more prominent, professional basketball has become a more viable route for young French athletes. Tryouts for INSEP are an intense process. During the first stage in September, 30 kids are selected. That number is dwindled down to about 20 in December during the second stage. In May, the final step of the tryout takes place, and 10 to 15 kids are chosen to live and play at the academy.
“I really had fun doing it. They had a couple tests, and a couple games and everything, but I really enjoyed the process and being able to play against those players,” Maledon said.
In total, the club consists of about 50 players — 25 boys and 25 girls, split into two teams per gender by age range.
In that first season, Maledon showed traces of NBA potential.
“(He was) maybe a little bit weaker — I’m talking about physically — but he was doing things,” Toupane said.
“That’s why we allowed him to have that approach, to see how he’s going to be. In the first, second year he was playing great, being one of the youngest guys with the team.”
Maledon needed to gain muscle to compete against adults. In that first season, he played in three games and averaged just 1.3 points per appearance. The next season, he boosted that to eight points per game.
As a 16-year-old, he left INSEP to join ASVEL Lyon-Villeurbanne in the top French division.
There, he became a legitimate NBA prospect as he did things with the ball that have already translated to the league: His ability to get defenders on his hip and keep them on his back, his intelligence and passing, his midrange ability. It was a skill set he showed even at INSEP.
“He was doing that. I wasn’t surprised, he had some kind of maturity, even at that age. He understood quickly,” Toupane said. “He has the maturity of playing the point guard. I think Theo is a point guard who can score because he understands the game.”
Hoard took a different route.
When Hoard was named MVP of the Jordan Brand Classic International Game in 2015, he began to want to play high school basketball in the United States, according to USAT HSS.
Before he made the move, he played at INSEP in 2015-16, where he averaged eight points per game.
“When I got to INSEP it was a humbling experience because there were so many guys that were just as good as me or better. You just really have to lock in, grind and continue to progress, because everybody’s good,” Hoard said. “That’s kind of what it taught me. It made me work harder.”
If Hoard’s breakout wasn’t in the Jordan Brand game, it was during the 2016 FIBA U-17 World Championship. He tied a tournament record by scoring 41 points in a game and averaged 22.4 points, 5.7 rebounds, 3.1 assists, and 1.7 steals.
A month later, he was a junior at Wesleyan Christian Academy (High Point, N.C.) in the U.S. He spent two years in high school before playing at Wake Forest for a season and declaring for the NBA draft.
At INSEP, he primarily played small forward, but Toupane referenced versatility that has allowed the 22-year-old to play both forward positions and even some center for the Thunder. That’s the most promising part of his game so far at the G League and NBA level.
“He was really intense. He’s a scorer,” Toupane said. “He runs the floor well, finishes to the rim. To me, he has a lot of skills. He can play close to the basket, can shoot it, he was really a versatile player.”
His time on the court in Oklahoma City has been relatively minimal, but with the Thunder’s plan of instituting positionless basketball, Hoard has a chance to remain part of the team.
His games against the Kings have been a good example of what he can bring. After the May 4 game, head coach Mark Daigneault noted how his presence helped the Thunder switch on defense, and on Sunday he played small-ball center while posting a career-high 16 points.
“He had the potential to get to the NBA,” Toupane said. “I’m not surprised.”
While Hoard is still trying to establish himself, Maledon has quickly asserted himself as a piece of the guard rotation. George Hill’s injury in January came with a silver lining — it allowed Maledon to enter the starting lineup ahead of schedule.
He’s just 19, but this isn’t his first time playing at a level higher than norms dictate. Maledon has not looked out of his element in the NBA.
He joined Russell Westbrook as the only Thunder rookies to score 30 points in a game, and he broke Alex Abrines’ Thunder rookie 3-point record in just 60 games.
French basketball is a level below some international leagues like Liga ACB in Spain, but it is on the radar of NBA scouts.
“(Scouts) have a great understanding of not only professional players that you’re evaluating for the draft or for pro scouting, but also the track that those players are on in their clubs at a very young age,” Daigneault said.
That pipeline will continue to grow. After Parker, Turiaf and Diaw were among the French stars of the early- and mid-2000s, former INSEP players like Evan Fournier and Rudy Gobert have taken the mantle.
The next generation of French athletes with INSEP roots including Maledon, Hoard and Detroit Pistons forward Sekou Doumbouya has arrived.
“Watching them play in the NBA, you know something? I’m not surprised,” Toupane said. “Sometimes we have the chance to have those guys.”
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