Denver Nuggets’ Boniface N'Dong and Dethie Fall represent Africa’s growing influence in NBA
Boniface N'Dong, a player development coach for the Nuggets, typically starts his pregame coaching routine with Nikola Jokić. It’s a rigorous workout between the two seven-footers, where N’Dong challenges Jokić in the low post on both ends.
“It’s finding that balance for him [of helping Jokić build confidence], and not making it too easy for him,” N’Dong explained. “It’s about getting the work they need [to be successful] in games.”
After the session is wrapped up, the two men will go their separate ways. Then out of nowhere, without fail, a random Nuggets player will shout “Boni!” It could be Jamal Murray before his ACL injury, Michael Porter Jr., or even the 5-foot-9 Facundo Campazzo. All of the players want to test their ability to drive and get past the 43-year-old.
For N'Dong, it’s the ultimate compliment.
“My length, I can almost challenge anyone’s shot. I can make it as hard as possible [for them],” N'Dong said with a laugh. “They enjoy it too.”
It’s reflective of a journey that saw N'Dong travel from M'Bour, Senegal to embark on a successful 14-year playing career in mostly Europe. N'Dong is a 2010 EuroLeague winner and has played for some of the biggest clubs in basketball outside of the NBA, including FC Barcelona and Galatasaray S.K.
Going from playing professional basketball in Barcelona and Istanbul to coaching thousands of miles away in Denver can be a significant transition, but N'Dong has been fortunate to work with someone with a similar background in Dethie Fall. Similar to N’Dong, Fall hails from Senegal and is a basketball operations associate with the Nuggets’ front office. The two men are close friends, using their shared experiences to help each other progress within their respective fields.
“I’m so glad he’s here…It just makes me feel like home. We eat a lot of meals together and don’t let him fool you, he’s a great cook,” Fall said of his compatriot.
Both men’s presence in Denver signals the growing footprint of Africa in the NBA, the world’s premier basketball league. With May 25 being Africa Day, it has been remarkable to see the growth of African players, coaches, operations employees, and executives around the league over the past decade. The Nuggets have been at the forefront of the Mother Continent’s rising influence in the league.
The team drafted arguably the second-best African player of all time in Dikembe Mutombo in 1991, the face of the franchise during the 1990s. Congolese guard Emmanuel Mudiay was picked No. 7 by the team in 2015. Denver also hired Masai Ujiri, the first African general manager in major American sports. Ujiri is also the first and only non-American to win the league’s Executive of the Year award in 2013. Ujiri is also good friends with Tim Connelly, his successor as the President of Basketball Operations for the Nuggets. Both men made Africa an important of their basketball scouting strategy. Connelly and Ujiri also played an early part in Fall's basketball development.
Soccer is the most popular sport in Africa, but Fall’s focus has always been on the hardwood. That’s in part due to family ties. Fall’s uncle is Amadou Gallo Fall, a key figure in the growth of basketball in Africa. Amadou, a 12-year executive for the Dallas Mavericks, launched the SEED Project to bring the game to the continent’s youth. Dethie was one of the participants in the project. It was there that he met both Ujiri and Connelly.
“I look at all of these guys [Amadou, Ujiri, and Connelly] as mentors because I’ve known these guys [for decades],” Dethie Fall explained. “They all came to the academy to help develop us.”
Dethie Fall can’t help but be inspired by Ujiri’s journey to the NBA and his success.
“I have a tremendous respect for Masai and what he’s accomplished,” Fall said. “He’s inspired a lot of Africans like myself to believe it’s actually possible if you believe in yourself, work your tail off and continue to grow. “
Fall is also grateful to Connelly for his current role as a basketball operations associate. The two men have known each other since 2005 and with the Nuggets having one of the smaller front offices in the league, Connelly trusts his personnel to wear multiple hats. Fall’s responsibility can range from logistical tasks like day-to-day operations with basketball operations to scouting.
“If you see any holes, you fill in [and help],” Fall explains.
While Fall was able to benefit from programs like SEEDs and Basketball Without Borders, N'Dong wishes similar programs were around during his formative years as a teen. N’Dong is about 10 years older than Fall and there weren’t many structured programs in Africa, let alone Senegal that offered him a chance to hone his skills. N’Dong played soccer until he was 13 until he realized an obvious problem.
“I was almost 6’5, 6’6, and I thought I’m never going to be a soccer player [at that height],” N’Dong said.
N’Dong firmly believes if he had learned about basketball at an early age, he would’ve been able to have even more success as a professional. It is for that reason that both he and Fall are extremely excited about the launch of the Basketball Africa League [BAL], which tipped off on May 16.
“Africa has a lot of talent,” N’Dong, who also serves as the head coach of the Senegal national team, said. “Africa is pretty big, there are 52 countries [on the continent]. I think you’re going to see a lot of [Pascal] Siakams, a lot of [Joel] Embiids, and a lot of Gorgui Diengs coming out of nowhere.”
“Those talents are right there, they just need to be harvested earlier, to maximize their potentials”
Fall, whose uncle Amadou runs the BAL, agreed with that assessment.
“This is going to be an unbelievable platform to create opportunities and change lives,” Dethie Fall said. “The biggest talent in Africa is its people. You take a country like South Sudan, where Bol Bol is from, they have some of the tallest people in the world and 75 percent of the population is under 27. Imagine if you invest in resources that the NBA is doing with the Jr. NBA, basketball academies, and now the BAL. Imagine how many lives you can touch. This is just an unbelievable platform”
Similar to how the NBA and Dream Team’s trip to Europe in the 90s inspired a generation of All-NBA caliber stars ranging from Dirk Nowitzki to Jokić, both men are confident that the same is coming for Africa.
“Incredibly exciting times for the continent,” Fall said.