Basketball’s next frontier is Africa

It is evident that Africa’s basketball scene is blooming, as more and more of the continent’s players are drafted into the top flight in the United States. But more still needs to be done.

The 18th of November was a life-changing night for basketball players looking to start their careers in the National Basketball Association (NBA). But it was particularly a historic night in the chronology of the sport in Africa.

Nine players of Nigerian origin were picked – making it the highest number of African draftees in one night, more than double the previous record of four players selected in the 2016 draft. 

Isaac Okoro (5th overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers), Onyeka Okongwu (6th overall by the Atlanta Hawks), Aaron Nesmith (14th overall by the Boston Celtics), Precious Achiuwa (20th overall by the Miami Heat), Zeke Nnaji (22nd overall by the Denver Nuggets), Udoka Azubuike (27th overall by the Utah Jazz), Desmond Bane (30th overall by Celtics), Daniel Oturu (33rd overall by the Minnesota Timberwolves) and Jordan Nwora (45th overall by the Milwaukee Bucks) are the players who made history.

Achiuwa and Azubuike were selected in the first round, making it the first time that two players directly from Nigeria were picked in the first round of the draft. As it stands, there are more than 90 current and former NBA players from Africa or with direct family ties to the continent. 

The results from the draft are a representation of the growth and development of the game in Africa. They are, by extension, a testament to how the path into the NBA is becoming more accessible and attainable to the continent’s youth. 

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Hakeem Olajuwon might be the most decorated African player in NBA history, serving as a valuable connection between the game and the continent. But Africa’s love affair with basketball began years before the Naismith Hall of Famer was born. 

The sport was first introduced in the mid-20th century in countries where France had a colonial presence. Through missionaries and the French administration, the ball game was developed on a school and club level. 

By 1961, an organisation called Association des Fédérations Africaines de Basketball (Afaba) comprised West and North African countries. The following year, the International Basketball Federation (Fiba) launched the first AfroBasketball tournament with five participating countries: Sudan, Morocco, Guinea, Ethiopia and the United Arabic Republic (now known as Egypt). Three years after AfroBasketball, the Olympics hosted the African Games in Brazzaville, Congo.

Local leagues emerge

From the late 1970s and onwards, countries formed their competitive leagues. Tunisia, Senegal, Morocco and Angola had a head start while other nations such as Libya, Rwanda, Uganda, Mozambique, South Africa and Nigeria would follow suit in the  1990s and the 2000s.

Despite coming to the party late, Nigeria’s Premier League has become one of the biggest and most-watched basketball competitions in Africa. The league consists of 16 local teams. The games used to air on Kwese TV and averaged a viewership of over a million people.

The women’s division, the Zenith Women’s Basketball League, was formed almost a decade after the men’s league. The inclusion of women in the sport has become a focal point of the Nigerian Basketball Federation (NBBF).

“For me, women are one step ahead of the men. They are making waves,” said Babs Ogunade, vice-president of the NBBF. “They qualified for the World Cup before the men by winning the 2019 AfroBasketball tournament.”

Moreover, a new continental basketball league called the Basketball Africa League (BAL), powered by the NBA and Fiba, will launch in mid-2021. It will feature 12 teams from across Africa, with the main aim to grow the continent’s talent pool. As a former captain of the Nigerian basketball national team, Ogunade has noted how the different leagues have produced more world-class players.

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Those picked in this year’s draft represent a class of new players born in 1999 or the early 2000s. They operate in a different terrain compared to past and current NBA players. This generation grew up with the internet and had access to basketball videos through YouTube and social media. 

That means they have had exposure to basketball from a younger age and therefore became aware, and involved, in the sport earlier. As a result, their game is more instinctive, an important aspect of skills development.

Growing skills has been one of the major stumbling blocks in growing basketball, at least according to the Angola men’s basketball coach, Will Voigt. Late bloomers often struggle with their shooting mechanics and other crucial techniques, making the game harder to pick up. Top African NBA talent like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid and Pascal Siakam were introduced to basketball late in their teenage years and still became elite players through the intense rigmarole of the elite league.

Ogunade said, “What I’ve seen is that everybody wants to run before they walk. Development is fractured and it’s a problem to build on that fracture. What we lack is teaching the fundamentals at an early age.” 

Talent, but no structures 

The skills deficiency is not limited to the players. Trainers, coaches and referees are also not properly trained. The knowledge transfer, therefore, is skewed. This, made worse by the lack of infrastructure, can inhibit the growth of the game.

“The talent is here but the results are not here. One of our biggest difficulties is that the structures are not yet following. There are not enough solid structures that can take these kids and grow them to the next level,” said Alphonse Bile, former Ivorian player and current African regional director of Fiba. 

“Fiba understood that at the beginning of the 2000s that it was important to focus on the training of coaches, referees, statisticians and all the people involved in the management of basketball. The next objective was to help the federations improve and professionalise their management systems,” said Bile.

One way the NBA is attempting to combat the skills disparity is through their Basketball without Borders (BWB) programme. BWB is a collaborative initiative between the NBA and Fiba and aims to promote basketball through camps and outreach. 

Since 2003, young adolescents from all over the continent congregate in South Africa for a week where they learn the fundamentals of the game under the mentorship of NBA players, coaches and scouts. It also serves as a springboard to get African athletes into the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) system in the US, where they stand a chance of getting into the NBA.

Azubuike caught the attention of recruiters at one of the BWB camps and was offered a scholarship to attend Potter’s House Christian Academy in Jacksonville, Florida. He later attended the University of Kansas, a school with an elite college basketball programme.

In the last two decades, grassroot programmes like Giants of Africa, Hoops4Hope and the Sports for Education and Economic Development (SEED) Project are among many that have formed to help address these issues. “One of the positive developments of basketball is that a lot of people have invested a lot of time and effort to see the game grow,” said Voigt.

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President of the Toronto Raptors, Masai Ujiri, has used his influence to secure funding for equipment. And, through his organisation Giants of Africa, he was able to build a facility in Kenya alongside Auma Obama’s Sauti Kuu Foundation. 

NBA players have also become involved, digging deep into their pockets and donating. Portland Trail Blazers small forward Carmelo Anthony donated a court in Johannesburg in 2018, for example, while African players like Luol Deng, Bismack Biyombo and Gorgui Dieng have funded courts and camps in their home countries.

Cameroonian power forward Luc Mbah a Moute has played a crucial role in identifying players like Embiid and Siakam in his basketball camps and placing them in the BWB programme where they have a pathway into the NBA. 

“Rising tides should lift all boards. That is our approach to basketball development. Getting players involved is how we sustain that evolution,” said Amadou Gallo Fall, president of the BAL.

And while there is still a long way to go, the general consensus from everyone working within the ecosystem of African basketball is that the sport is headed in the right direction. 

“Africa has a very bright future, without question,” said Kim Bohuny, NBA senior vice president of International Basketball Operations. “The talent is here and now what we’re doing is trying to help these players get the experience to become better players to see a pathway for a future in the game.”

The 2020 NBA Draft was not only a manifestation of the major efforts in developing basketball in the continent, it was also a starting point of what is to come.

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