There was an underappreciated milestone Tuesday when the All-NBA teams were announced: two players born in the west African nation of Cameroon, Joel Embiid of the 76ers and Pascal Siakam of the Raptors, made the teams, Embiid as a second team selection, Siakam third team. Making it more special was that the announcement came on NBA Africa Day.
It wasn’t just a big deal for Cameroon. It was a milestone for the entire continent’s basketball program and its future. The number of Africans in the NBA is rising and the league is turning its resources to developing more. This season, there were 12 Africans in the NBA and more than 30 players with at least one parent from an African country.
The Basketball Africa League, a joint venture between the NBA and FIBA with sponsorship from Nike, Air Jordan and Pepsi, is back in business after the pandemic, its playoffs underway. And teams around the league, including the Nets, are scouting it and other African competitions, including the bi-annual FIBA Africa tournament.
At the same time, Basketball Without Borders, a program that produced Embiid and Siakam, is going strong as well across the continent.
So, with African basketball continuing to make more progress year-by-year, the chances of an emerging prospect coming out of Africa becomes more likely for the Nets. In 2019 Sean Marks didn’t dismiss the idea that the NBA’s next “hidden gems” could be African.
“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.”
The Nets aren’t forthcoming about the nitty-gritty of their scouting but the bottom line, according to one league source, is that scouting Africa is basically an intelligence operation. You watch a lot of film, you try to find out as much information as possible. That may sound like typical NBA scouting process, but Africa presents unique challenges. The game is in its infancy and the infrastructure present in North America, Europe and even China is much more highly developed.
Indeed, Africa is a continent that has never had a primary focus on basketball due to the scarce resources there. Whenever an NBA camp came around, players would storm the event to just have a few experiences learning from the games’ best. Two rising stars pointed out the realities of balling in Africa.
Abdul Halil-Barre, a 6’9” incoming freshman at Duquesne University who’s from another west African nation, Benin, told Nets Daily, “There is not really good basketball in Africa. There is no organized basketball in Africa. Once you start playing basketball in Africa the first thing they teach you, I mean, the only thing they teach you is how to dunk. That’s all. You can’t shoot, you can’t do nothing.”
Another African prospect playing overseas, Junior Tshunza, told Nets Daily “In Africa, especially in my country (Democratic Republic of the Congo), it’s really hard to go out and to show your talent. We don’t have a really good place where you can play basketball. We play in the park.”
The BAL hopes that starting now, it can change things. BAL President Amadou Gallo Fall has made it clear that the goal would be making the league a destination for top players with U.S. college, G League and international experience. The option of playing in BAL is something that players living in Africa could then use to work on their game with experienced players.
The Nets do have an advantage or two. Nets Assistant Coach Royal Ivey gives back to Africa by spreading his knowledge of the game coaching the South Sudanese national basketball team. Last year, he coached the team at AfroBasket 2021, the country’s first major tournament. Ivey and South Sudan — the world’s newest country — surprisingly reached the quarterfinals where the team was eliminated by defending champions Tunisia.
So he’s got first hand knowledge ... and a long-term relationship with one of African basketball’s biggest advocates, former NBA player Luol Deng who’s president of the South Sudan Basketball Federation.
When touching on basketball culture in South Sudan last year, the New York native told the Boardroom that basketball in Africa is on the rise.
“The basketball culture in this part of the world is on the rise, especially with the new Basketball Africa League. In the next few years you are going to see more talent coming to intertwine with the talent already in Africa – The progress I would love to see would be for all the high-level NBA guys connecting with their country, giving their time and effort to support the growth of the game of basketball. Doing more clinics and camps, more player development and people development on and off the court — connectivity through the vessel of basketball.”
For a short period of time during the early season COVID scare, a South Sudanese big man, Wenyen Gabriel, was signed as a hardship player.
The Nets also have their own relationship with the BAL. In December 2019, just before the pandemic hit, the Nets hosted a combine for the BAL at HSS Training Center in Brooklyn. As they often do with international opportunities, the Nets raised their hands. As our Matt Brooks wrote back then, “For a team with global ambitions (and a decade of international ownership), it’s something they do.”
And what many people don’t know is that Steve Nash was born and raised in South Africa before moving to Canada as a child. He too is African.
Seeing the rise of Joel Embiid and Pascal Siakam is giving the region of Africa hope that young African players can make it far in the NBA. These next years are going to be interesting as we sit back and watch what sort of talent can be produced there.