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JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Inside adjoining gymnasiums at a suburban private high school here, dozens of teenagers from around Africa have an advantage that few of their American counterparts could even imagine.
They are getting bounce passes, shooting tips and dribbling instruction from Erik Spoelstra, Alvin Gentry and Mike Malone, three accomplished NBA coaches who were giving of their time and expertise. During a drill, Spoelstra pulled aside one player and explained the benefit of crouching on defense. Malone wanted a point guard to see the entire floor and Gentry showed a group of tall teens some tricks of the box-out
It’s a lot to absorb, but the sponges are mopping it up and must now make room in their suitcases for all the knowledge they’ll take home from the Basketball Without Borders clinic.
However — and here is where their American counterparts have a distinct advantage — this top-shelf coaching only lasts through the weekend. The BWB campers must now return to The Congo and Namibia and Somalia and Kenya and somehow continue their basketball education with local coaching that, like the players themselves, is still a work in progress.
The number of African-born-and-raised players reaching the NBA won’t make a substantial leap until the coaching in Africa improves. Meanwhile, the typical African player will be high on athletic talent yet behind players from other countries in terms of fundamentals.
“I think it’s all progressing,” said Gentry, the Pelicans’ head coach, “but of course, nothing happens overnight.”
For now, the continent will accept the small victories. Bismack Biyombo makes $17 million a season in Orlando relying exclusively on blocking shots and rebounding. Gorgui Dieng is doing the same with the Timberwolves, who gave him a rich extension. Both are keeping the Big Man Syndrome alive in Africa, meaning, most of the basketball exports tend to be power forwards or centers.
For Africa to represent the NBA heavier in those playing positions that require other skill sets, the dribbling, shooting and passing techniques must rise another level. For example, players raised in Europe have perfected those skills before they’re teens and ride them all the way to the professional ranks either at home or abroad.
Africa is still awaiting on one of its own to become a leading three-point shooter in the NBA, and a top point guard with a devastating crossover dribble.
A vast majority of NBA players from Africa learned the game while growing up in other countries. Even most who’ll represent Team Africa in the NBA’s exhibition game Saturday fall into that category, such as: Dennis Schroder (Germany), Thabo Sefolosha (Switzerland) and Serge Ibaka (France and then Spain). All three bring solid fundamentals that paved their way to NBA riches, but again, those skills were mainly groomed outside the continent.
The parents of Nuggets guard Emmanuel Mudiay, like Ibaka’s, moved their son out of Congo because of the Second War and found refuge in Dallas when he was five; Mudiay didn’t begin playing basketball until he was in middle school, getting American tutoring.
Same for Luol Deng, perhaps the purest shooter ever born on African soil. He left the unrest in Sudan for London, then New Jersey, where he learned at basketball power Blair Academy. Joel Embiid, the rising star of the 76ers, bolted Cameroon for the US the moment he showed promise. He played high school ball in Florida and became a five-star recruit which laid the foundation for Embiid landing in the NBA draft lottery.
The good news is the NBA over the last two decades have made Africa a priority by funding the construction of gyms and conducting clinics for coaches.
“The coaches here are getting involved in coaching clinics, teaching techniques and fundamentals like never before,” Gentry said. “Some of the high school coaches are very interested in learning more and understanding how to teach. I think it’s all progressing. The league saw the issue at hand and addressed it and I’ll be shocked if this is not the place where the next wave of NBA players come from.”
There are pockets of Africa where coaching and teaching is better than others, but again, the small victories are what the NBA and FIBA, the world governing body for the sport, are happy to accept for now.
Malone said: “As you watch these kids play, you look at kids in different areas like Egypt, Tunisia, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Rwanda. Some places the kids are more advanced with their skill level and that speaks to those countries having a good infrastructure for those kids at an early age to learn how to play. Then you have other countries here with players who are tremendously athletic, they play hard and want to learn but just don’t have the foundation for fundamentals so they’re playing catch-up. I think what the NBA is doing with the NBA Africa game, the more we’re over here and the more we’re in the community, helping the players and coaches, I think it’s going to speed that curve up pretty fast.”
Another positive sign is the game is being embraced a lot earlier than before. Hakeem Olajuwon, Dikembe Mutombo and Manute Bol, largely recognized as Africa’s basketball pioneers, all found the game in their late teens. The popularity of the NBA game and exposure to Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and others are hooking African kids in elementary school and some are straying away from the soccer fields. The earlier the interest, the quicker the development and the more time for learning, the better chance that a high-scoring small forward or guard will emerge from Africa.
“People automatically think of Mutombo and Olajuwon and the big guys,” said Malone. “But as the game continues to grow in this country, it won’t just be big men. It’ll be 1-through-5. It’s not just going to be African big men, it’s going to be African basketball players.”
Gentry: “Where we’re at right now, I don’t think they need to come to America to get their training. I see some skilled guards in this camp because they’ve been involved since an early age. You’ll see this happen more and more, the screen and roll skills, shooting, making decisions on transition and fast break. You’ll see it get better.”
The next groundbreaking moment for African basketball is a better showing in international play, especially the Olympic tournament, where African countries are eliminated not long after the opening ceremony. That will confirm what NBA coaches and general managers suspect, that Africa is and will be the next great breeding ground, the Final Frontier.
“I can’t think of another place,” said Gentry. “When you think of the Sudanese where the height is 6-4 and 6-6, I mean come on. I remember 24 years ago, when I came down here on a clinic and there were a bunch of Sudanese there, and you had 14-, 15- and 16-year-old kids walking around and they’re 6-10. The number of African players in the NBA will continue to rise because of the impact the NBA is having over here.”
Malone: Twenty years ago, it was China. David Stern wanted to make the globalization of the NBA and China was the first frontier. Now Africa is the next one because of how big it is and how many millions of kids live here. India is another untapped country with a population of millions and the NBA is trying to get its foothold there as well.”
Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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