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Nets raise their hand again in pursuit of global recognition, this time hosting Africa League

We sent Matt Brooks to the Nets training facility last week to witness the latest international gambit by Brooklyn, hosting the first Africa League Combine.

When the NBA needed a site for its Africa league combine, the Nets raised their hands. For a team with global ambitions (and a decade of international ownership), it’s something they do. Whether it’s playing in China, Mexico and England, or offering up their Brooklyn facilities, they’re all in.

So, the NBA’s new Basketball Africa League (or BAL for short) held its 50-player workout last week at the Nets’ HSS Training Center in Industry City. Players came from Africa and all over the world to Brooklyn for a shot at their hoops dream.

“Our goal is to establish the Basketball Africa League as a destination for top players with U.S. college, G League and international experience,” said league president Amadou Gallo Fall.

About 20 of the 50 players on hand were from Africa, others hold African passports. But some of those on hand —most in fact— were just looking for an opportunity. It’s part of the BAL plan: integrate young Africans into a professional league operated by the NBA and FIBA with NBA executives, coaches ... and players ... to help develop them.

The NBA recognizes that some of its best players are either African-born, like Cameroon’s Joel Embiid and Pascal Siakam, or one generation away, like Giannis Antetokounmpo, whose family emigrated from Nigeria to Greece. On the Nets, both David Nwaba (Nigeria) and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot (Congo) are the children of African-born parents. And on the Long Island Nets roster, there are three players from Africa: John Egbunu (Nigeria), Deng Adel (South Sudan) and Jonathan Kasibabu (Congo).

Sean Marks is on the record saying the Nets have to scout African players. At a press conference after the 2017-18 season, he was asked specifically about scouting Africa.

“We scout everywhere and you’re right, you have to find those hidden gems,” said Marks. “They can be in any part of the world. To me, that’s the part of the business that’s really enticing – the curiosity of where’s the next player coming from.”

Starting in March, the job will get easier, more structured, not just for the Nets, but for the NBA. The BAL will debut in seven African cities, in Cairo (Egypt), Dakar (Senegal), Lagos (Nigeria), Luanda (Angola), Rabat (Morocco) and Monastir (Tunisia). Kigali (Rwanda) will host the BAL Finals.

Each club participating in the BAL regular season can’t have more than four foreign players meaning it has to have at least eight local players on its roster. Tightening things further, two out of four foreign players have to be from an African country as well. So there will be some but not a lot of room for Americans, like Miles Reynolds, who I overlapped with at the University of Pacific, best known for Michael Olowokandi’, who became the first African player (Nigeria) to be drafted overall No. 1.

Reynolds was added to the Combine roster just before the first session last Tuesday, but understood the magnitude of his selection. “You gotta realize this is a blessing. Most guys would kill to have this opportunity.”

By working out, he’s signaled that he’s ready move to somewhere in Africa once the G League regular season ends in March. A commitment as well as a blessing.

The Combine also featured some locals, Ismael Sanogo, a 6’8” power forward from Seton Hall who holds and Ivory Coast passport and 7-footer Adonis De La Rosa from the Bronx and Dominican Republic. At least five former NBA players were also on hand. No big stars, just players with continuing their careers.

Players of all ages, play-styles, sizes and nationalities competed against one another. Some had played at the professional-level during brief NBA or G League stints, while others had just completed college.

Indeed, there was a lot going on at HSS over the two days at the Nets exquisite facility. Scouts were clicking away on keyboards, their BAL team-hats pulled down tightly over their faces in focus, as they glanced at sheets that included players’ names, numbers and positions on the court.

Countless parents were in attendance, too, cheering on their children and the ultimate hope of cracking the big league NBA. There were a handful of media roaming around the court, snapping pictures, capturing video of the on-court play, and discussing the daily proceedings with players, coaches, etc.

For the prospects, there was actual basketball. Lots of it, in fact.

Tim Quarterman, who most recently played for the Rockets in 2018, snaked around a high screen with the skillfulness of another quite famous (and bearded) Houston guard, before diving into the paint for a one-handed floater.

Cornelius Hudson, a 6’7” forward who played for the G League’s Salt Lake Stars, curled around a flare screen before canning a gorgeous three-point long-range look (plus the foul). At one point,

TySean Powell, who was drafted out of Duquesne by the Canton Charge, and Jordan Evans, a 6’2” shooting guard who went undrafted out of Mississippi Valley State, switched beautifully on a high-hedge.

The NBA made a big deal about the Combine, which was headlined by two NBA celebrities with Nets backgrounds: former Coach P.J. Carlesimo and former player Dikembe Mutumbo. Carlesimo served as BAL Combine camp director, Mutumbo as the league’s unofficial spokesman.

In some ways, it was a fairly typical Combine, not unlike the NBA Pre-Draft Combine in May.

Players took part in anthropometric and athletic testing, positional skill development and 5-on-5 games in front of attending scouts, coaches and executives from club teams across Africa participating in the qualifying tournaments for the inaugural season of the BAL.

On one court, excited teams awaiting their chance to scrimmage passed time the best they could, practicing jump shots while receiving basic fundamental training from the coaches. On the other floor was the games. Guys played hard. Charges were taken, hard fouls were doled out with regularity, double-teams ensued on nearly every other possession. Full-court presses were even unveiled in late-game situations during these exhibition contests.

Fall’s goal for the combine was simple: Provide aspiring professional hoopers and hungry scouts the opportunity in working and growing together.

“Our first BAL Combine will provide teams with the opportunity to evaluate a deeper pool of talent as they fortify their rosters ahead of our first season, which tips off in four months,” he said.

But of course, this Combine was different. It’s a brand new league with brand new teams in cities with varying love for the game. Angola and Senegal have a rich hoops history. Egypt does not. One international scout told NetsDaily that the BAL will have to focus on basic physical development as well as skills development early on. It will take some time. Lessons will be learned.

For Reynolds, pretty much a typical camper, the BAL Combine is just the latest stop —and step— in his development. He was drafted by Long Island in the G League Draft then traded to Northern Arizona.

He’s worked tirelessly to get to where he is, with ups and downs so familiar to the basketball vagabonds that occupy courts around the world. After being draft, he spent the summer training with Phoenix Suns’ star Devin Booker. The biggest thing he worked on? Mentality and body language.

“You’ll see (Booker) make 40 shots,” said Reynolds about the future of Phoenix basketball. “But what you don’t see is him miss the next 5.”

But in November, Reynolds was waived by Northern Arizona. Now, he may be on to Africa.

Although Reynolds’ team was down by 20+ points for most of their Wednesday afternoon scrimmage, Reynolds started slow but finished strong, finishing with off-hand layups around the basket and kicking to the corners as a forensic pick-and-roll creator.

“I came in and missed my first four shots. A year ago that would have affected my play.”

Reynolds and I also discussed the individuality at the BAL combine.

Reynolds and I agreed that the combine was a “really cool idea” and expect that it “will only grow over time.” As the NBA’s global influence stretches farther and farther, and teams look to uncover the next Embiid or Siakam, combines like BAL’s first-annual event will become increasingly important.

Miles Reynolds said it best. It’s “a blessing” to be among the first to witness it. And for the Nets, it’s another recognition that great players can come from anywhere. Ya never know.