The next Yao Ming from China or the first true star from India is on the NBA’s wish list without question as the league makes inroads in those countries.
But when being realistic about where a potential goldmine of talented basketball players originates outside of North and South America and Europe, Africa is at the top of the list.
Not all that far from the days of Hakeem Olajuwon and Dikembe Mutombo, the NBA has recognized a growing number of basketball players from the vast continent and have established considerable grassroots efforts — such as Basketball without Borders — to expose basketball to more people through camps and clinics.
The league increased its effort this season bringing several high-profile NBA players and coaches to Johannesburg, South Africa for three days of basketball and life instruction for nearly 60 of Africa best players born in 1998.
“What will come of this is the development of more clinics, more camps and more youth competition,” said Toronto Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri, who was born in Nigeria. “It continues to grow, and this will expose more young players and give them more opportunities and we have to create that opportunity.
NBA players Joel Embiid, Gorgui Dieng and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute are among former Basketball Without Borders participants. Africa is important for the NBA, which has traveled to the continent 13 times for Basketball Without Borders and opened an office in Johannesburg in 2010.
This year’s Basketball without Borders will culminate on Saturday with the NBA’s first exhibition game in Africa. The game will feature Team Africa (Luol Deng, Bismack Biyombo, Giannis Antetokounompo, Serge Ibaka, Festus Ezeli and Dieng among others) vs. Team World (Chris Paul, Marc and Pau Gasol, Bradley Beal, Jeff Green, Nikola Vucevic, Boris and Trey Burke among others).
NBA commissioner Adam Silver, San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich and Brooklyn’s Lionel Hollins are coaches, and Atlanta’s Mike Budenholzer, Boston’s Brad Stevens, Olajuwon and Mutombo also made the trip.
‘I’m excited but it’s even more than that,” Deng told USA TODAY Sports. “Being from Africa, it was a dream to play in the NBA, which was almost unreachable and now to have the opportunity to go back and be part of this game, I’m proud.”
Los Angeles Clippers All-Star Chris Paul was on the fence when first approached about making the trip but his wife, Jada, encouraged him to go. Paul has made it a point to spend as much time with Deng as possible in South Africa.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver, top, poses for a group photograph with children and players during a visit to the newly built Boys and Girls Club at Protea Glen in Soweto, South Africa. (Photo: Themba Hadebe, AP)
“It’s a life-changing experience,” Paul told USA TODAY Sports. “Luol’s been telling me a lot of the history. It’s one thing to be in the States and have people tell you how big of an impact it is but you don’t understand it until you travel here and see it.
“To see the passion a guy like Masai has for the kids touches you and gives you goosebumps. They have a connection with the kids, and the kids love the game so much. That was the biggest surprise for me. I had no idea what to expect. The kids have been nothing short of amazing. They’ve been sponges.”
Paul said he was about to show camp participants how to utilize the Euro-step and campers told him they already knew how to execute that move.
“Once upon it time, it was America’s game,” said Paul who began reading Nelson Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom before the trip.
Ujiri has made it a personal mission to reach kids through basketball. Each year, he holds two camps in Nigeria — one for the top 50 players ages 11-18 and one for big men 6-8 and taller. After Basketball Without Borders, Ujiri will travel to Nigeria, Kenya (where he will help build a court) and Rwanda.
Ujiri said African countries need more courts, infrastructure, quality coaches and more competitive games for younger players. That’s what he’s trying to accomplish through his Giants of African foundation.
“There is talent here,” Ujiri said. “We’re trying to give them opportunities to play younger.”