Olivier Sarr (Toulouse, France, 1999) has been among the best European players in NCAA this season. He just finished his Junior year in Wake Forest averaging 13.7 points, 9.0 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in the ACC, establishing himself as one of the leaders of his team and showing how he is consolidating his game after three years in college basketball.

How did you start playing basketball?
I started playing basketball in our porch when I was three with my dad, who was a former player in France, and I really fell in love with the game, I can’t explain why, I guess it is what happens to every player. There are lots of players who inspired me, like Kobe, KD, Anthony Davis, Giannis… But Olajuwon was definitely my favorite player; his footwork is just unmatched and I think he is the best big that ever played in the league. And what also motivates me is my younger brother; I want to be a great model for him, show him that just putting the work and believe in yourself, you can accomplish everything and make it as far as you can and as far as you want. 

Before heading to college basketball you were part of INSEP program. Which pros and cons do you think there are in playing for an academy instead for a pro club in France?
INSEP is a great institute. They give you the opportunity to play with the best players of your generation in your country, and it is really good. It's like a college campus where you have everything; the institute, the doctors, you live with the other athletes there. On your second and third year you play against the third division professional players; but actually it is a pro and a con because, for me as a big man, it was kind of hard to get that intensity and level of competition, since I was growing, my body wasn’t ready, I had growth problems and pains… At the same time it is great for guards, because they are more mature than bigs at this age. However, one of the cons is that there are a lot of people there, and when you need to get treatment you have only two therapists for a lot of kids with pains and growth problems whose they need a close follow up, so maybe they still need to improve on that part. 

Why do you think many players coming from INSEP decide to take the same route?
I can only speak for myself and my experience, but I think my decision is kind of the same like other guys. The ball bounces for like 15 years maybe if you are lucky, but you have to think about after your career, and having a degree can help you. I was and I am a great student, and I didn’t want to abandon school, I needed to go further and continue my studies and academics. Basketball wise, I felt my body wasn’t ready after INSEP and I couldn’t lie to myself and say that I was going to be able to compete right away professional in France; so I felt that college would gave me the best chance of developing my body and compete, apart from being part of a team for a long time where I could see my improvements and be able to play against guys mostly my age. And lastly, America is different from home, so coming to the US, getting acclimated to the language, to the life and everything would give me the greatest opportunity for me, and I took it. 

Next season you will start your Senior year. Do you think your experience in Wake Forest fulfilled the expectations you had when you committed?
I had no expectations really, but things are going really well here. In my Freshman year I needed to get used to playing in the ACC, which is the best conference in the country, playing against Duke, North Carolina and players who are going to be be drafted, and I got good minutes in my first year. Then Sophomore year I had my body right, but I needed to get used to it and I didn’t show everything I wanted. And then this year it was a great season; I’m just not happy about our results, we wanted to be able to qualify for the March Madness and that’s something that that we didn’t do this year and I feel a bit frustrated as a team captain and leader. Individually though, it was a great season. Coach Manning put me in a great position to be able to be successful; I can’t thank the coach and staff enough, especially my S&C who helped me a lot, the nutritionist… Everybody is committed to my progress, so I cannot say it went as I planned because I didn’t plan to be that well, but I’m really happy about the situation and about Wake. 

As you already said, the Atlantic Coast Conference is one of the best conferences in NCAA, known to be an extremely competitive league where you need to perform immediately. How was your adaptation in the league considering you had a lot of range to improve physically when you got there?
At first it was challenging, because I was really skinny and I had to play at the 4 and I wasn’t guarding bigger guys which it was what I really needed. So my first year was challenging, frustrating, moments of doubt… But I kept working, working on the weight room and eating consistently, so I could put my weight up from 190 pounds to 225 pounds. On the second year I gained some weight, and I was assimilating what could I do with my body and my game, but it wasn’t consistent yet. And finally this year, I really knew what 225 pounds feel like and I was sure about what I can do on the court; how I could use my weight, my strength and my skillset and put in all together in my game. And it worked pretty well and I can still do a lot more. 

Your averages and importance on the team has increased every season since your Freshman year. What are you prouder of having improved since you got in Wake Forest?
I’m really proud of my post game, I didn’t have it on my skillset before and now it is my strength. And I love it, because I feel I can use my quickness against bigger and stronger guys, but also be able to face up smaller players and shoot over them. I feel I’ve improved it a lot, also my ability to make a move and create my own shot over both shoulders, that is something I worked a lot in the offseason with my coaches. It’s funny because at the beginning I didn’t like playing the 5, it was like punishment for me when I was young because I felt that I was playing in that position just because I was the tallest player on the team. Now I appreciate the fact that coaches put me at the Center when I was younger; I would even love that they did it earlier so I would be able to be better. I also try to keep improving by watching highlights from other players like Olajuwon; I try to do it on a daily basis and I feel that it really helped me a lot. 

Every year there are opportunities to turn pro before finishing your studies. How important is for you to finish them before becoming a professional basketball player?
Studies have always been very important to me, it’s something that my parents really emphasized; it is always good to have something that you can always get back to in the future. It can be a handicap for some people that don’t have the funds to go college, so if I am in the position to be able to be successful, I feel the responsibility to get things done.

You told us about your younger brother, Alexandre, who signed for Real Madrid early this season. Being so far from each other, how do you try to help him with his new experience in Spain?
I have a great relationship with my brother, even though we are 6 years apart, he is really mature for his age and understands a lot of things that I didn’t know at the same age. He actually came last summer and stayed with me for a month, so it was amazing to be able to show him the next level for him, working out together but also spending a good time. We talk every day, he talks to me after his games and I try to give advices about control what you can control, keep working hard and believe in yourself. I always try to tell him that there will be hard moments, but you have to stay  focused, keep the faith, keep working and always be decisive. I’m really proud of him; he can become a great player, he has a great mentality, he is at the right place, he is working hard and has a great model. He is also going to be at least 7’0, so he got everything; the tools, knows how to work… It’s just matter of time.

Photo: godeacs.com