Fournier, 19, Just Focuses on Game in Vegas
LAS VEGAS, Nev. -- In a city of uneasy pairs – Siegfried & Roy, pocket aces, Carrot Top and his body – the man named Chu Chu and the millionaire French teenager struck a strange one.
The two had been nearly inseparable since they met at Denver Nuggets camp in the weeks leading up to NBA Summer League. Both came from overseas. Chu Chu – known in full as Chukwudiebere Maduabum – hailed from Nigeria, by way of the NBA D-League. The Frenchman, No. 20 overall pick Evan Fournier, came from just outside of Paris.
They’d hung out in Denver for a few weeks, staying late after practice to shoot around, wandering the city looking for places to eat and turning into fast friends in the process. All of which came in handy when Nuggets strength & conditioning coach Steve Hess played a little prank on his rookies on their first trip to Las Vegas.
“Steve tried to set us up,” Maduabum said. “He was like, ‘there’s this good place, Morton’s. Have you heard about that? Go there. The food’s really good.’ We went there, and I don’t know what Steve was thinking. I don’t think he remembered I played in the NBA D-League. The steak was like 60 bucks.”
Fournier picked up the bill. Partly because he’d just gotten paid like a first-round pick. And partly because, well, that’s one of the very few ways that a 19-year-old in Vegas can relieve himself of a paycheck. So, while Fournier spent five games on the University of Nevada - Las Vegas campus making the only shots he could legally take, he wasn’t so lucky on the Strip.
“I just stay focused on basketball,” Fournier said of being underage in Sin City, after coming from a country where the legal drinking age starts immediately after potty-training. “I’m not here for anything else.”
He paused and smiled.
“But I guess I gotta come back later.”
So, while Vegas dangled 24 hours of temptation in front of 300 of the very best young basketball players in the world – from All-Rookie teamers Kawhi Leonard and Kenneth Faried, to Lottery picks Damian Lillard and Bradley Beal, to a wide cast of aspiring NBA training camp invitees – what did Fournier do?
“Stay in the hotel,” Fournier said. “Order room service.”
“Stay in his room,” said swingman Josh Carter.
“He be in his room chillin’,” said guard Derwin Kitchen. “There’s not much you can do. You can’t get into the clubs, you can’t gamble. You can’t do nothing when you’re 19.”
“Just play basketball,” said Kenneth Faried.
“We go to sleep,” Maduabum said, laughing. “We just go to sleep.”
Which sounded pretty good to Carter, in retrospect.
“I wish I’d have stayed in my room like him,” he said with a laugh.
So, all that Las Vegas got to see from Evan Fournier – on this trip, at least – was how the man who became the youngest player in history to score 20 points in a French Pro A league game (he did it at 18, breaking Tony Parker’s record) matched up against the best young talent in the world.
He’d played with abandon in his final year in France, carrying his Poitiers team with 14 points per game (on 42-percent shooting) in what amounted to an extended NBA audition. In 26 minutes a game in the 2011-12 season, he hoisted up nearly 12 shots a game.
So, the 11 shots a game he took in five Summer League games – in 31.2 minutes a game, no less – hinted at a player who’d begun to rein his game at his new level. Fournier still scored 14.8 points per game, on 40.7 percent shooting (including a 36.7 mark from behind the arc from a player who’d struggled from distance in the past), picking up a number of admirers on the way.
“I was pretty shocked [about his age],” Carter said. “I didn’t know he was so young, so I think he’s gonna be a good player down the road.”
Not that he’d changed his game completely. Fournier averaged just 1.4 assists per game at Summer League. Just like he did in France, where he sliced through defenses like molten brie, he forced the ball toward the basket and frequently turned down open teammates on the wing to try to finish on the inside in thick traffic. Sometimes it worked (he shot 83 percent from the line) and sometimes it didn’t (he turned the ball over 2.8 times a game).
“He had to carry his team in France, so he’s used to shooting all the balls,” Faried said. “But here, he’s got to learn, especially when the season starts, that he doesn’t have to take every shot. Everybody on our team can score. … I told him to calm down and worry about defense, and that’s when your offense will come.”
But, outside of some defensive trouble – “I have to learn the rules, man. There are some I just don’t understand,” Fournier said after one of the three games in which he picked up seven fouls – he showed himself to be a player that made the right call jumping to the Nuggets instead of staying in France, his teammate said.
“He’s pretty mature,” Carter said. “He plays the right way. He doesn’t play like he’s a young player. I sense the maturity. He picks up some things better than the older guys.”
“At 19, all I could do was dunk and block,” Maduabum said. “I’ve gotten way better, but all I could do was run, jump and block and that’s all I had. I had no basketball IQ, but he’s really smart and he’s gonna be a really, really good player.”