Jesse Wagstaff has had a unique view of the NBL's evolution over his 15 years in the league.

25 May
Dan Woods for

The NBLxNBA pathway has been followed by an extensive number of players in recent years – and in both directions. For every Jack White, Isaac Humphries, Will Magnay or Xavier Cooks to earn NBA opportunities, there have been the likes of Matthew Dellavedova or Jarrell Brantley looking to the NBL to further their prospects, or talents like Andrew Bogut or Aron Baynes returning home.

Even through the Next Stars program the likes of lottery selections LaMelo Ball and Josh Giddey have cemented the NBL’s status as a player development Mecca, but the pathway could be set for a new milestone in the form of Alexandre Sarr and the number one pick.

Given the widening international nature of basketball, it was only a matter of time before an NBL star would be seen as soaring into contention as a genuine number one prospect, but not since Ball has there been this level of international hype around a talent from this competition.

Perth captain and six-time NBL champion Jesse Wagstaff has had a unique view of the NBL’s progression and evolution over the past 15 years. From his debut campaign in the 2009-10 season to now, he’s become one of the competition’s most decorated players, and he’s played with some of its most exciting talents.

While Terrance Ferguson’s stint with Adelaide is often cited as sowing the seeds of the Next Stars pathway, Wagstaff spent the 2013-14 season playing with one of the most electric, immense talents to have set foot in modern era of the NBL - James Ennis.

Ennis arrived at the Wildcats following his selection with the 50th overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, incidentally by the Atlanta Hawks, who are odds on favourites to select Sarr with the number one pick this year.

He came to Perth with the hopes of furthering his NBA opportunities in lieu of an NBA D-League stint. An NBL title, All-NBL First Team selection and a short stint in Puerto Rico later, he was playing for the Miami Heat.

He last played for Chinese side Hebei Xianglan, but spent eight seasons making 395 appearances in the Association.

In the ten years since Ennis tore apart the NBL alongside the likes of Wagstaff, Damian Martin, Shawn Redhage and Jermaine Beal, countless talents have headed to our shores to further their international prospects, but not many through Perth.

Wagstaff says the prospect of Sarr being taken with the number one selection adds further legitimacy to that pathway Ennis started through the Wildcats a decade ago.

“They’re kind of two sides of the coin,” Wagstaff told NBL Media. “James was one of the first trail blazers in the NBL in terms of trying to get to the NBA, almost as that stash piece for a team and he came out here and dominated.

“The NBL already has a lot of credibility across the globe, but to have a potential number one draft pick play here in that previous year, it will just build on the types of talent that have gone both ways between the NBA and NBL recently.

“You talk about players of that calibre going from one league to the other, it gives the league a huge benefit. Hopefully Alex is that next piece where we can legitimately say we helped him on his journey to be the number one pick. Obviously, that would be huge for Alex, but it could also be the next step for that pathway.

“Alex had a physicality and skillset that, I think, is quite unique to the NBL. If you look at the global game he’s part of that new trend, but the NBL really hadn’t seen that seven footer who can do the things he does.

“He’s exceptionally talented physically and incredibly unique in that regard.”

Since Perth’s Playoff exit at the hands of eventual champion Tasmania at the back end of NBL24, Sarr has been in the United States looking to further establish himself as the clear number one draft candidate in a sea of capable players.

At the time of writing ESPN, Bleacher Report and The Ringer! are among a host of mock drafts to have Sarr listed as the first overall selection.

Sarr’s countryman Zaccharie Risacher is projected second by both Bleacher Report and ESPN, while The Ringer! believe Donovan Clingan will be selected second overall and have Risacher projected seventh.

Clingan, on the other hand, has been projected seventh by B/R and sixth by ESPN.

It’s an open class in which the only semblance of continuity is placing Sarr top of the board, and after playing in Spain, Overtime Elite and in the NBL, Sarr has labelled his experience with Perth as his favourite stint in a recent interview with NBA Insider Shams Charania.

“I think Perth was my favourite and the most challenging at the same time,” Sarr said. “It’s a really nice city and it was my first real professional year.

“You always have to have some rough times, like after your first bad game you’re in your mind a little bit but then you learn how to push through.

“That was a challenge I had to overcome, but that was definitely the best experience.”

Sarr has been overwhelmingly positive about his time at the Wildcats in the face of intense media scrutiny these past weeks, while the likes of Wagstaff, head coach John Rillie, and GM of Basketball Operations Danny Mills have all praised the conduct of the Frenchman throughout his time at the club.

Each year, top prospects are faced with the decision as to whether to continue playing for their team – college or international – in order to help lead the side to potential success, or call time on their season before the close of play in order to protect themselves from injury and maintain their draft stock.

Sarr elected to play out the campaign with the Wildcats, and found himself crashing and bashing down low with two of the most physical paint presences in the NBL in the forms of Will Magnay and Marcus Lee, and he competed to the best of his ability until the curtain closed on the Wildcats’ season.

Wagstaff says the fact Sarr elected to play out the campaign with Perth rather than sit out to protect his draft stock speaks volumes about the mindset, commitment and maturity of his former teammate.

“I’ve said it numerous times about Alex, what impressed me most about him was his maturity,” Wagstaff said.

“To come in as an 18-year-old kid and show the maturity he displayed, he was willing to learn, he was exceptionally coachable, and to be honest he could have packed up shop halfway through the year, but he wanted to help the team win.

“To me, that’s a mature and unselfish mindset and both of those things are hugely commendable.

“I would certainly say he displayed an incredible sense of maturity while he was here.”

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