BY MARTENZIE JOHNSON | The Undefeated
When Amadou Fall, the president of the nascent Basketball Africa League (BAL), was asked why there were so many prospects of Nigerian origin in Wednesday’s NBA draft the Senegalese former basketball player credited the country’s population size (Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa), its “very strong diaspora” and the “God-given” athletic talent of its people.
Nigeria, which has been a priority of the NBA’s outreach and presence in Africa dating to the first Basketball Without Borders (BWB) on the continent in 2003, has produced elite athletes across the sports spectrum, from futbol to boxing to track and field.
But possibly the most well-known export from the country of nearly 200 million people is Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon, drafted No. 1 overall in the 1984 NBA draft by the Houston Rockets. Olajuwon, who helped the Rockets win back-to-back NBA championships in the mid-1990s, has had a “tremendous effect” on both the expansion of the NBA into Africa, according to Fall, but also encouraging fellow Nigerians to take up the sport.
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“It’s just with daily community: We all want to root for our own, and I think for anybody picking up a basketball, that name resonates,” Fall told The Undefeated. “He’s always referenced.”
That, along with the work of Fall and others involved with operations in Africa, might explain why draft history may be made by a crop of athletes who share a heritage with Olajuwon.
Headed into Wednesday, eight players either from Nigeria or with a parent from the country could be drafted by one of the league’s 30 teams, which would mark not only the most Nigerians selected in a single year, but also the most for players of African origin. Five such players were drafted in 2016.
The prospects are Onyeka Okongwu, Isaac Okoro, Precious Achiuwa, Udoka Azubuike, Zeke Nnaji, Daniel Oturu, Jordan Nwora and Desmond Bane.
Achiuwa and Azubuike were born in Nigeria.
Through the NBA’s work with BWB; the NBA Africa offices in Johannesburg; the NBA Academy Africa in Saly, Senegal; and 12 nations in the inaugural BAL season in 2021, the league has deeply invested itself in Africa for nearly two decades, which appears to finally be paying dividends for not only native Africans but also those who migrate to the U.S., who Fall said become “fabric[s] of the American society.”
Okoro, a former Auburn forward, whose parents hail from Nigeria, called it “very special” for so many Nigerians to be included in this year’s draft.
“There’s a lot of Nigerians that actually know how to play basketball and are really good at basketball,” Okoro told reporters last week. “And now that the world’s about to get put on notice that there are a lot of Nigerians, I feel it’s a special thing.”
The basketball community was put on notice more than three decades ago when Olajuwon was drafted first overall over the likes of Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley in 1984. Fourteen years later, another Nigerian, Michael Olowokandi, was selected with the No. 1 pick. Despite Olajuwon and Olowokandi being the only Nigerian top picks, Fall said their selections signaled “what’s there in terms of potential.”
Since 2000, two native Nigerians — Josh Okogie (drafted 20th overall in the 2018 NBA draft) and Festus Ezeli (No. 30, 2012) — have been drafted in the first round, though none higher than 19th overall. That list is expected to change with the selections of Okongwu, Okoro, Achiuwa and Azubuike.
While the Nigerian players in this year’s draft may not have had many native Nigerians to look up to while growing up, they’ve had a treasure chest’s worth of first-generation stars to follow over the last 15 years.
There are currently 19 players of Nigerian origin on NBA rosters, including the three Antetokounmpo brothers, Bam Adebayo, Victor Oladipo and Andre Iguodala, the oldest Nigerian in the league, who was selected ninth overall in the 2004 draft.
The presence of so many Nigerians makes the NBA a more realistic goal for younger players growing up in both the States and in Africa.
Okongwu, who played his lone season of collegiate basketball at USC last season, and whose parents were born in Nigeria before moving to America in 1999, looks up to all the Nigerians and other Africans in the NBA.
|NAME||DRAFT YR.||DRAFT POS.||DRAFT TEAM||CURRENT TEAM|
|Olumiye “Miye” Oni||2019||58||Warriors||Jazz|
“If you’re an African, yeah, you love the sport, have a lot of pride in it; a lot of players like Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka, OG Anunoby. Bam Adebayo is African,” Okongwu said. “We take a lot of pride in our sport. I definitely look up to them, model my game and lifestyle after African players in the league.
“I’m trying to be successful like them as well.”
Giannis Antetokounmpo, in particular, has resonated with not only the current crop of young players, but also those keeping up with him in Africa. Antetokounmpo’s parents moved from Lagos, Nigeria, to Greece in 1991, three years before Antetokounmpo was born, but, as he told The Undefeated in 2019, “I grew up in a Nigerian home.”
Antetokounmpo, who participated in the inaugural NBA Africa Game in 2015, represents the image the NBA is trying to project in Africa to grow basketball among a younger audience.
“So we wanted to make sure we … give young, talented players an opportunity to participate in a really vibrant, dynamic sport that speaks to the youth, that is cool, and Giannis is an incarnation of all of that,” Fall said.
He compared the phenomenon of Antetokounmpo to that of Olajuwon.
“Young players from not just Lagos or in Dakar — or wherever, all parts of the continent — they want to be like Giannis.”
Take the length and athleticism of the prospects coming out of Africa and mix that with what Fall calls Nigerians’ “resiliency and ambition to reach the highest level in sports and anything else,” and the result is a cocktail that leads to a record-setting amount of Nigerian prospects in the 2020 draft. Though Okoro thinks “it’s something in the Nigerian food,” as he told basketball scouting site DraftExpress in April 2019.
(To be sure, Fall says that ambition doesn’t just apply to sports: “I see a lot of Nigerian doctors also.”)
It’s such a unique time for the NBA as it pertains to Nigeria and Africa, no better illustrated than the media availability of Achiuwa.
The former Memphis forward, born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, located in the southern part of the country, fielded a question from a Nigerian reporter, to which Achiuwa responded, in Igbo, the language of the Igbo people in Nigeria, “Ibu onye Igbo?” (“Are you Igbo?”)
The shared heritage of this year’s Nigerian prospects has even led some of them to strike up friendships.
“Me and Daniel Oturu, we both played on the same AAU team, he’s from Minnesota and his parents are from Nigeria,” said Nnaji, a projected second-rounder out of Arizona. “Onyeka Okongwu, I think we’re pretty close. We’ve played a lot against each other in AAU, and even in college as well.”
While basketball’s popularity is growing on the continent, it’s still looking up at futbol or rugby for the attention of most Africans. But could it one day overtake those sports?
Fall stresses the goal of the league’s efforts in Africa is to encourage young boys and girls to participate in basketball, expand the presence of the NBA and use the sport as an “economic growth engine” for the nations involved in the BAL. The league has accomplished most of its goals, with a pipeline for players to not only make it to the NBA but now, with the BAL, to stay on the continent to play professionally rather than relocating to Europe, like in the case of Charlotte Hornets forward Bismack Biyombo of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who played his first two years in Spain. NBA games are now broadcast all across Africa, in multiple languages.
Competing with futbol, though, isn’t a priority. Yet.
“As far as for us, it’s not a competition, but I like our chances because our game, basketball, speaks to the youth, and it’s a lifestyle brand we are building here,” Fall said.
For Fall, and the rest of the league’s Africa operation, when asked about who among this draft’s Nigerian prospects he’s most looking forward to seeing play next season, he politely declines and says they don’t play favorites. Their main concern is getting many more Okongwus, Okoros and Azubuikes (after four seasons at Kansas, Azubuike will likely be the 11th former BWB Africa participant to be drafted) into professional basketball.
“We want to see as many young players as possible from as many countries as possible across the continent continue to come into our league and build their careers,” Fall said, “and continue to give back to their country.”