As the 2022/23 NBA season reaches its crescendo, fans across the globe will be watching with great anticipation. And nowhere is NBA more intently viewed than West Africa, as this year’s roster features no fewer than 16 African born players.
The recent NBA 2023 Draft featured two exciting African prospects among the world’s best young players. James Nnaji from Nigeria and Senegal’s Mouhamed Gueye have already caught the eye with outstanding performances in EuroLeague and U.S. college basketball respectively.
This success is the result of hard work, and long term investment by basketball innovators on both sides of the Atlantic.
There’s no secret to Africa’s rich heritage in competitive sports. From football to basketball, and even gridiron and rugby union have scouted, identified and launched African talent into the top echelons of the sports.
At the heart of the NBA’s African initiative are a brace of US-led & African partner companies who foster an ecosystem of young, homegrown basketball talent, and give them an opportunity to pursue a basketball career on the continent and beyond.
The NBA’s African focus involves investing in building talent and providing youth development opportunities, as well as infrastructure and civil society across the continent, especially through the new Basketball Africa League (BAL).
Founded in 2019 in collaboration with the NBA, BAL features 12 teams across Africa. The league is designed to tap into a market with a huge, tech-savvy and youthful population, while also giving African players the platform to showcase their talent on the continent and a potential path to one day star in the US.
Those who have shown their support for the league include Mutumbo, Barack Obama, NBA commissioner Adam Silver and some of Africa’s top businessmen.
The NBA has commitments from NIKE and the Jordan Brand to be the exclusive outfitters of this new league and will look to African companies for additional sponsorship and partnership opportunities.
Continued strategic partnerships with private sector companies, in conjunction with USAID and the local government of the countries hosting the league, lessens the burden on the BAL to build the ecosystem from the ground up—and shortens the time it will take for the NBA to be fully operational and profitable in its first-ever league outside of the U.S.
As well as showcasing potential Africa stars of tomorrow, these initiatives also help to raise the sport’s profile among the young, reinforcing the global audience for basketball.
New African talent is evident both on and off the court; the Toronto Raptors president, Masai Ujiri, was raised in Nigeria and became the first African general manager in US professional sports.
His Giants of Africa non-profit has hosted basketball camps for more than 5,000 children in 16 African countries since 2003 and he is currently on a mission to build 100 basketball courts across Africa.
Who are going to be the breakthrough players that takes Africa’s basketball presence to the next level? Here are a few rising stars to watch out for:
Six foot 11 Nnaji has just been drafted by the Charlotte Hornets after making his name playing rotational centre for FC Barcelona. Previously, Nnaji was scouted by Ratgeber Basketball Academy in Hungary after playing in Nigeria following a 2018 Facebook reel of his camp highlights that went viral.
Raised in Dakar, Senegal, before moving to California aged 16, Gueye quickly established himself in the Washington State 2022 Pac-12 All-Freshman team. This year, Gueye was recently drafted by NBA’s Atlanta Hawks. Playing as an offensively-oriented centre with admirable activity defensively, this talented Senegalese youngster is exceptionally fluid for his size.
This dynamic Nigerian university student currently plays his student basketball at Columbia University in the NCAA Division (US College Basketball League). He is currently insured, but will qualify for this year’s NBA draft on 22nd June.
Touted as the NBA’s next rising star, Bona plays his college basketball for UCLA. He was first noticed outside his mother’s shop in Lagos by a local basketball player who was struck by Bona’s height.
‘When you see somebody that’s that positive, that energetic, always has a smile, it stands out because the rest of us don’t.’— UCLA basketball coach Mick Cronin.
Currently dazzling crowds in the BAL, where he plays for the Cape Town Tigers, this South African basketball prodigy aims to be only the second player from his country to play in the NBA.
Africa has been known for producing legendary NBA big men such as Hakeem Olajuwon, Joel Embiid and Manute Bol. What the continent isn’t known for is producing players that can pass the ball to those big men.
Say hello to new G League Ignite point guard Thierry Serge Darlan, an African on a ‘mission’ to change the narrative. As an NBA Academy Africa alumnus, Darlan’s goal is to become a point guard prospect for the 2024 NBA draft. With six NBA draft picks in the last two years, the G League Ignite has been a proven training ground to fulfil NBA dreams.
Another NBA Academy Africa graduate, this 17 year old Cameroonian plays in the Basketball Africa League and is fast building a reputation as the best player to come out of the country since Joel Embiid.
2023 looks set to be a year marked by some of the most complete homegrown prospects that African basketball has produced, across both the men’s and women’s game.
Find out more about African basketball stars on the up and making their mark on the NBA and the initiatives that recognised their talents by watching our Beyond The Headlines Nigerian Basketball mini-documentary here.