'He's gonna have a killer career': The young Wildcat with sky-high NBA ceiling

Jordan Usher looked straight down the barrel of the camera when asked about Alexandre Sarr: his prodigious French teammate.

It was a plea.

"Whatever NBA team gets him: please be cautious with him, and build him to be a super successful guy," Usher said, staring through the lens of ESPN's camera.

"Don't tell him not to shoot threes, don't tell him not to do anything. Because he's so raw and he's so talented. As of right now, he can shoot threes, he can shoot a floater, he can dunk the ball, he can block the ball, he can handle it a little bit. I just don't want anyone to mould him in the wrong way."

The way Sarr has played to begin his NBL career with the Perth Wildcats has earned that sort of guarded but excitable response.

Initially, this was a case of Sarr joining the Wildcats to bolster their rebounding and rim protection stocks; two of the team's glaring issues from last season. What the 18-year-old actually is, is one of the world's generational young talents, with an enviably versatile skillset and a ceiling so high it's almost undetectable.

"I don't call myself a unicorn, but I think that's something that's important for me," Sarr told ESPN. "To be able to do everything on the court.

"I'm a versatile big. I can play on ball, off ball, can shoot threes, crash the glass. Then, on defence, [I can] guard most positions, I think... I always try to make the right play, and play the game the right way."

Sarr truly announced himself during the Wildcats' pair of exhibition games against the NBA G-League Ignite in September; the Frenchman dropping 17 points, seven rebounds, and six blocks in the first contest, then 26 points, 10 rebounds, six blocks, and three assists in the next.

The 7'1" frame -- with a 7'5" wingspan -- was on show. So was the timing and rim protection on the defensive end. He stepped out for catch-and-shoot threes, had a nice touch around the rim, and defended well in space. Most importantly, though, he showed a high motor he'd been often criticised for over his junior career.

"I was showing my competitiveness, and the motor," Sarr said.

"I improved on that, and that's something I wanted to show. I always had it. I was always a competitor. To go out there and prove it was something I took pride in."

Sarr says he wants to work on his overall stamina over the course of his season as part of the NBL's Next Stars program in Perth -- "to be more efficient, even when I'm tired," he says -- and the early returns are indicating his role with John Rillie's team should only increase as each game passes.

Over his first three games of the NBL season, Sarr is averaging 12 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks per game, shooting 71.4 percent from the field, including 66.7 percent from downtown. The sample size is incredibly small but the production piece of those stats should hover around those numbers all season long. With each game, Sarr has earned more minutes, and that's only expected to help him reach his ceiling even faster.

"I think he's got a lot of untapped potential," Bryce Cotton told ESPN.

"Coming back here, he's kind of finding his groove within the team; what his niche is gonna be. I'm expecting him to be very dominant. I said earlier: hopefully it's the only time I play with him, because that means he's off in the NBA doing his thing."

When you speak to people around the Wildcats, there's almost a sense of confusion. Most of them refer to Sarr as a 'kid' because he's still just 18, so they're protective of his development, but there's also a reverence for how mature he is, both on and off the court.

"He's a young kid that's got a baby face but, you can tell in his game, there really isn't a roof for him right now," Usher said.

"There's not like a ceiling. Only thing I told him was to continue to work hard and be yourself, because I'm really excited to see what NBA team gets him, because they really have a ball of clay. A true ball of clay.

"He's gonna have a killer career. He's the greatest young dude. He's so nice. He's spirited, he's funny. He likes his video games. He likes Rick and Morty. He's a kid that's gonna have a super illustrious career and I just can't wait to see him do it."

Keanu Pinder -- who Sarr backs up at the five-spot, and shares the court with in the front-court at times -- had a specific comparison when describing the French centre's demeanour.

"Reminds me a little bit of [Josh] Giddey, when he came into the league," Pinder told ESPN.

"He was mature mentally. To see that basketball maturity at that age is special, so you can tell he's gonna go a long way.

Sarr was flanked by his parents, Marie and Massar, when he arrived in Perth, and had the opportunity to spend the first two weeks of preseason only working out with the team's young players. That was deliberate by Rillie, the team's head coach, so the inexperienced members of the roster could get a feel of the style of play and coaching staff before the veterans arrived.

Sarr also has the advantage of having a brother, Olivier, who's in his third season in the NBA; currently on a two-way contract with the Oklahoma City Thunder. That foundation has led to a practically perfect start to his time in Perth; something Rillie made note of, but is keeping an eye on how the teenager handles adversity when it inevitably hits.

"He's certainly someone that will impact and help the Perth Wildcats strive for their 11th championship," Rillie told ESPN.

"There are gonna be some speed bumps. You guys are seeing a great version of him right now. I really wanna see when he hits a wall, what's the next step. Everyone critiques who he's not. That's just a great chance for him to display where he's going as a player."

Sarr's maturity is a theme when you speak with those around the Wildcats. He's currently No. 4 on ESPN's latest 2024 mock draft, with the prospect of ending up as the No. 1 overall pick, but has dealt with that hype and pressure as well as any 18-year-old could.

That attention puts a target on his back, too. We've seen opposing bigs go particularly hard at him -- Tyler Cook dunked on Sarr before the pair jawed back and forth -- and don't expect that to stop just because he's young.

That's because, during his time in the NBL, Sarr is being judged not on his age, or even his ceiling, but on what he's capable of right now. And that's a player who can impact winning in one of the toughest pro leagues in the world.

"I don't think age matters," Sarr said.

"I just think it's about how you can play, how you can perform. If you can perform, you just have to perform. I don't see it as something that's daunting. I like the challenge. I'd rather be in that position than just being seen as a young guy who can't really produce."