Above the Rim and Beyond the Court: Olivier Rioux, the world's tallest teen, is more than just a basketball player

Olivier Rioux, best known as the Montrealer giant on the IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.) basketball team, is more than a basketball player — he takes pleasure in the arts, raving about abstract aquarelle. He is interested in biology and astronomy, saying he absolutely believes aliens are real, for “if we’re the only beings alive, it’s scarier.”

It’s fitting because Rioux is among the new wave of basketball players who have never been seen before.

Standing at 7-foot-9 inches and 290 pounds—an updated spurt since last year, when he was closer to 7-foot-7—the University of Florida basketball commit stands taller than Chet Holmgren, taller than Bol Bol, taller than Victor Wembanyama — all who are changing how the basketball world sees players who are that tall.

(USA TODAY Network)

“(Wembanyama) is growing basketball for us, for the tall guys,” Rioux said. “I’ve seen him train and know some of his training and know some of the work he does. I like it. He owns it.”

Listed at 7-foot-4, Wembanyama undergoes training that has helped to alleviate bodily stress that often plagues players of this stature. His mobility is outstanding, and he looks fluid on the court the way few players of his size do.

“He can do the splits. I don’t know if you understand how big that is, for a big man, but doing the splits for us is very hard,” Rioux said.

The high school senior ices his body, does blood flow drills that essentially require him to lay with his back on the ground and legs up against the wall, and does some yoga.

Rioux spent two days last year with former Chicago Bulls center and longtime team radio color commentator Bill Wennington. The 7-footer who spent 15 years playing professional basketball, 13 in the NBA, gave Rioux advice about the game and health while the two played ping pong, faced off in chess, and tested the French knowledge of Wennington, another Canadian.

Following in the footsteps of guys like Wennington has long been Rioux’s ambition. He started playing basketball seriously at the age of 8, by which point he was already standing 6-foot-1. By the sixth grade, he was 6-foot-11, and then, over the summer before seventh grade, he crossed the 7-foot mark. For that, he has made his basketball career working in the post under the guidance of Pascal Jobin, who has coached at Cégep Édouard Montpetit and McGill University.

(USA TODAY Network)

Rioux’s offensive game features a lot of dribble-handoffs and setting screens. He said he knows how to pass the ball well and has good timing when deciding when to shoot, but he’s still gaining comfort shooting from further out. He knows that being tall isn’t enough in the NBA; successful careers for players of this stature have been centered around height, strength, mobility, and versatility.

While Dirk Nowitzki ushered in the era of big men who could shoot, he also was a precursor of general managers scouting for bigs who could create offense away from the paint. Giannis Antetokounmpo, at 6-foot-11, led the Milwaukee Bucks to a championship because he can be a primary ballhandler and create for himself and his teammates. Nikola Jokic has melded the roles of center and point guard better than any other player in history and rode that skill to a title.

Bol is still in the league in large part because his guard-like abilities are so tantalizing for an athlete who stands 7-foot-3. The Oklahoma City Thunder traded up to draft 7-foot Aleksej Pokusevki because he was someone who moved fluidly, dribbled and passed well, and could shoot. Wembanyama can dominate at the rim, but he’s also mobile, can create off the dribble, and is comfortable running plays at the top of the arc beyond setting a screen.

Even when it comes to blocking shots, which Rioux is predictably adept at, he vouches for the importance of being mobile.

“It’s more mobility and length that helps you,” he said. “It’s both.”

In the U-16 FIBA games, he averaged 8.3 points and 10.3 rebounds in 18.8 minutes per game. This summer, at the age of 17, he played for the Canadian U-19 team. He saw limited playing time—three minutes of action in three of the five games he played—but recorded a total of seven rebounds in those three matchups. In the final game, 12 minutes against Japan, he recorded 10 points and five rebounds.

At IMG, he is working on his game while splitting time between the IMG Varsity Blue roster and the program’s national team. Rioux was with the national team during the City of Palms Classic over the weekend before Christmas, getting three minutes of action against Richmond Heights. He’ll keep growing — maybe literally, as his stated height of 7-foot-7.5 in the interview with USA TODAY High School Sports was taller than the various heights listed around different outlets — before heading to Florida, where he committed in early November.

(Note: Since the original publication, Rioux has grown, having now been listed at the aforementioned 7-foot-9.)

Rioux was attracted to the environment of the campus and people at the university. He’s unsure what he plans to study — with an interest in physics, biology, and art, who’s to say?

“It’s a good environment and people are very nice. I felt like I would fit in that program and the people are very mature,” Rioux said. “I felt like I could get taught a lot of stuff.”

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