Cool and Confident, Frenchman Fournier Strides Into NBA

Evan Fournier, 19, has had his sights set on -- and stars aligned for -- a trip to the NBA since he could dribble a ball.

NEWARK, N.J. – As it turns out, the only parts of his game that Evan Fournier ever truly doubted were his cooking skills.

Three years ago – before the 19-year old Frenchman went to the Denver Nuggets at 20th overall in Thursday night’s NBA Draft, becoming the lone international selected in the first round – Fournier left home for the first time.

He’d excelled at basketball at the French National Institute of Sport, Expertise and Performance and finally, at the age of 16 in 2009, decided it was time to turn pro. He linked up with a team in Nanterre, on the western edge of Paris in French’s second professional division (Pro B).

For the first time, the only child was away from his family and forced to fend for himself. Which included operating a stove.

“That was terrible,” he said. “It was rice every day.”

But that, too, was part of the plan.

If it seems like Evan Fournier was manufactured for this moment, that could be because it’s pretty close to the truth. He’s a product of two professional judo athletes who raised him around some of France’s greatest athletes. Champions. At 10, after two years of playing basketball, Fournier told his parents that he’d play in the NBA. Five years later, he was training with the French U16 National Team. At 16, he was learning what it takes to be a professional athlete while his American peers were working on three-point turns. By 17, he was playing in France’s highest division. By 18, in the 2011-12 season, he was a star.

“I can say this guy is the most pro-ready player [here],” said his agent, Bouna Ndiaye. “I’m not saying the best player, but he knows what it means to live by himself. To go to practice every day. To be independent. To be a franchise player: even if he’s not there yet, he knows what that is. He’s ready.”

The first four months in Nanterre wore him down. He’d gone from gliding through the lane and dicing up his helpless peers to eating elbows from grown men.

“There’s no age when you’re on the court,” Ndiaye said. “You have to compete. They don’t care if you’re 16 or 17 or 18, they just see you. It’s war over there.”

Then he’d get up, do it again and come home to nothing but a big dose of ice. And rice.

“He was under the ground,” Ndiaye said of Fournier’s first months on his own. “He was lost. He was like, ‘I don’t understand. I’m practicing hard. I’m doing this, and I’m doing that.’ But it was just a transition, and we did that on purpose, for him to learn. … It was tough, but struggle makes success. Some players, they never struggle, so they never know the effort [it takes] to make it.”

For Fournier, it was the first time reality tested his goals. He’d never struggled to accomplish, well, anything in athletics. Basketball had come easy. But over those months, introduced to failure, he learned what it meant to be a professional, Ndiaye said – including what it meant to truly earn a paycheck.

“I was 16 years old, starting to live by myself and do little things,” he said. “When you’re 16 you’re not that ready to do those things. That was tough. Also, I was really skinny so I was getting beat up by the older guys on the court. But I kept fighting back and never gave up. Every day in practice I gave 100 percent.

“I just stayed confident,” he continued. “When you see champions, they are always confident even when they are struggling.”

The notion of champion has always meant a lot in the Fournier family, where Francois and Meriem taught Fournier that to love meant to fight. Not to fight amongst one another, but against all those things on earth that keep a man from his dreams. Against failure.

So the two fighters taught him discipline. They taught him confidence. They taught him what it meant to battle until the end – “to never surrender,” Francois said on Thursday.

“They bred this kid to win,” Ndiaye said.

A member of the French National Team development program since his mid-teens, Fournier was the leading scorer for his club team in France's highest division in 2011-12.
Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

They just never knew that he’d turn out like this.

“We don’t know why, but when he was 10, he said ‘I’ll play in the NBA,’” Francois said. “He was a good player, but only two years of practicing, and he said, ‘When I’m tall I’ll play in the NBA.’ Maybe since he was very, very young, he met a lot of champions from many sports: judo, track and field, wrestling.”

“You just realize that champions are normal people,” Evan Fournier said. “They’re not from Mars or something like that. They just work really hard.”

Fournier wasn’t invited to the Green Room on Thursday night because he wasn’t expected to go in the first 20 – although he certainly expected it (“I wanted to go early, because I’m ambitious, but it should be about where you go, not just how high you go”). Even his agent held back his enthusiasm because he’d seen how low 2008 Pro A MVP Nando de Colo – a player very similar to Fournier – had fallen in the 2009 Draft, when he went 53rd overall to the San Antonio Spurs.

But Fournier knew. And because, in his mind, he’d always pictured himself walking across the stage to shake David Stern’s hand, he convinced his entire family to make the trek to Newark.

“My son was always sure [he’d be drafted], but I wasn’t, because I don’t know the NBA system,” Francois Fournier said. “So I didn’t know. He’s told me for a long time that ‘I will go in the NBA, I’m sure.’ I believe my son, so I’m like OK my son, next year you’ll be in the NBA.”

And he has.

“He told me ‘I’m not nervous, I worked so hard,’ Ndiaye said. “He’s like that.”

Over and over again, Fournier’s coaches would wait until Fournier left the gym, then call Ndiaye and tell him to have Fournier take the day off. That he was working too hard. That he needed to rest. Not that it mattered.

“He’s always requesting of me, ‘Tell me what I have to do to be better,’” Ndiaye said. “Every day he’s requesting. Every day.”

Which is why, in a quiet moment at the Prudential Center on Thursday night, standing in a Nuggets hat with the brim unbroken, he smiled. After weeks of showing off his skills for teams around the country, he could finally get back to work. “I just can’t wait to go to practice,” he said.