Pro player Toupane connects with ETSU class

Jeff Birchfield • Apr 14, 2020 at 10:00 AM

French professional basketball player Axel Toupane was the most recent guest for the East Tennessee State University’s “International Sport” course taught by Natalie Smith.

With their online laptop computers through the Zoom app, students were able to ask questions to Toupane, a current EuroCup player with NBA experience.

Smith has worked with professional teams in Europe and has plenty of connections, setting up an interview the previous week with Anita Asante from the Chelsea FC Women’s Soccer Club. She talked about the interaction between the students and athletes.

“It has been fantastic. The professional athletes enjoy talking about their experiences with young people,” Smith said. “It’s been really amazing. They’ve been incredible in engaging with them. In this class, we have two Division I soccer players and two Division I basketball players. So it’s similar to their experiences. I think the professionals speaking to the younger athletes is rewarding.”

Toupane was nearly a Division I basketball player. But the son of former player Jean-Aim’e Toupane opted to turn down an offer from UCLA at 18 years old to play professionally in France.

Now 27, Toupane has nearly a decade of pro experience, including 21 games with the NBA’s Denver Nuggets and two games each with Milwaukee Bucks and New Orleans Pelicans. He also has two stints in the G-League, but has spent the last three seasons playing with teams from Lithuania, Greece and currently Unicaja in the Spanish Liga ACB league.

Doing their homework, the students were well versed in the player’s background. Here are a few of their questions along with Toupane’s answers.

How are the playing styles different from overseas and the NBA?

Toupane: “Europe is a great place to improve your game and there are a lot of bridges between Europe and NBA basketball. As far as playing style, the game in Europe is slower. You’re allowed to stay in the paint and the defenses are more compact.

“The fans are great. There are great atmospheres where sometimes in the NBA, the fans just come to see a game. The fans in Europe are really diehard.”

Who was your biggest influence as a player?

Toupane: “Obviously my dad is a big inspiration for me. He came from Senegal to France when he was 22, first for school and then for basketball. He’s an inspirational story and a big example for me.

“As a player, it was Kobe (Bryant). I started watching NBA basketball when the Lakers played in the finals against Indiana. Since then, I was a Kobe diehard fan. I liked his mentality, his work ethic. He was super inspiring for a young player.

Was basketball always your love?

Toupane: “I used to play golf with the other part of my family. There was always basketball. Once I played in the NBA, I saw all the business surrounding the players, so I got into starting a business and things related to entrepreneurship. That’s my hobby on the side.”

Who is the hardest player to guard?

Toupane: “In the league, I would say KD (Kevin Durant) hands down. He’s a 7-footer who can shoot and when he crosses the ball over he has so much wingspan, it’s crazy.

“Then international, Russ Smith, the guard from Louisville, he’s super tough. He’s small, fast and you never know where he’s going to go. I’m supposed to be a good defender, but he put me in trouble with my feet trying to guard him.”

What is the biggest difference between your professional team in Europe and your French national team?

Toupane: “There’s more difference between NBA and Europe because FIBA is like European basketball. I was a little surprised the way they call the game in FIBA basketball. There are less calls, where the European games, as soon as you put your hand on someone, it’s a foul. Last summer in FIBA, it’s more physical and they let you play a lot more.”

What happened with the Pelicans?

Toupane: “I signed a 10-day (contract) over there. At the end of 10 days, Michael Beasley got hurt so they signed a big instead of me. I wasn’t there for a long time.”

How has Giannis (Antetokounmpo) most improved since you played with him in Milwaukee?

Toupane: “It was three years ago and his body changed a lot. He was muscular, but now he’s way bigger and stronger. You could see him get off-balance when he was going full speed.

“Now, he so much bigger and stronger, he’s impressive. I remember one play he got stopped at the entrance of the paint. He spun back like he was going to put the ball behind the 3-point line. He pivoted and dunked where he was barely inside the paint with the full extension of his arms.”

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