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Exploring The Potential Of The Basketball Africa League

Dakota Schmidt goes over the NBA’s history within the continent of Africa and the potential of the Basketball Africa League, that will tip-off in 2020.


On this past Saturday, NBA commissioner Adam Silver announced that the league will be partnering up with FIBA (International Basketball Federation) to launch the Basketball African League (BAL). This league is scheduled to launch in January 2020 and will have 12 teams that will consist of existing club teams which will participate in qualification tournaments that will be held later this year. According to ESPN, the countries of Angola, Egypt, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa are expected to have teams compete in the league. There will be no more than two teams that will be located in a single country.

”The Basketball Africa League is an important next step in our continued development of the game of basketball in Africa,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement about the new league. “Combined with our other programs on the continent, we are committed to using basketball as an economic engine to create new opportunities in sports, media and technology across Africa.”

Silver and the NBA brass aren’t the only ones excited about the new league as companies such as Pepsi and Jordan Brand have signed their support, according to the league’s commissioner. In addition to those big brands, former President Barack Obama is also expected to have hands-on involvement with the league. This won’t be the first time that Obama and the NBA has partnered up as the 44th president worked alongside Raptors GM Masai Ujiri and the Giants of Africa to help build a community center in Kogelo, Kenya last year.

While this is a huge step in regards to the NBA’s work within the continent, the league’s process of expanding in Africa has been a decade’s long process that dates back to when Nigeria’s Hakeem Olajuwon made his debut with the Houston Rockets in 1984. From an on-court perspective, African-born ballers like Dikembe Mutombo, Luol Deng and Joel Embiid have since gone on to become All-Stars. As those players have shined in action, the league itself has made the following steps to expand in the continent:

  • Have held annual Basketball Without Borders event within the continent since 2003. While most of the events been held in Johannesburg, South Africa, the organization held camps in Dakar, Senegal in 2010 and Luanda, Angola in 2016.
  • Reached a multi-year deal with Econet Media in 2016 to broadcast more than 500 NBA and WNBA games every year on the service’s pay TV, internet and mobile platforms.
  • Held an All-Star packed NBA Africa Game in South Africa in 2015, 2017 and 2018
  • Opened a basketball academy in Thies, Senegal in 2017 which trains both boys and girls at the Under-16 and Under-18 levels

While all of those are huge accomplishments, that academy in Senegal could pay the biggest dividends for the upcoming Basketball Africa League. Although the BAL will feature pre-existing professional club teams, it would absolutely make sense for the new league to somehow find a way to include some of the best prospects from that academy.

From my perspective. an allocation process which puts a prospect on a team that resides in a country where that particular player was born and raised in would be the best way to go. For example, a guard born in Kenya would play on a team based in Kenya. While a draft would probably be more exciting, this option makes more sense as its only right to put a a young 18-19 year old player in a country that has the kind of culture and language that they’re familiar and comfortable with. That comfortability should allow a prospect to develop their game as they won’t have to worry about trying to learn another language just to be able to communicate with his teammates.

Another way to help those African prospects grow on the court would be to bring in former pro basketball players that have ties to the country via birth/ancestry or speak the same language as the majority of that nation’s population. Ideally, that retired player turned coach would have past experience playing in a league like the NBA, Spanish ACB, G League or Euroleague to help inform these younger African prospects about how to prepare themselves both on and off the court to eventually compete against high quality competition.

From an on-court perspective, the presence of those former players can only help these younger prospects when it comes to learning things like fighting through off-ball screens, knowing when to switch or learning how to develop pick-and-roll chemistry as both a guard and big. In addition to that, those former players can help prospects improving their base skills like working off the dribble as a shooter, drive-and-dish as a facilitator or controlling the paint as a defensive big.

Some potential examples for this would be former Toronto Raptors player Mamadou N’Diaye helping young Senegalese bigs or former G Leaguer Daniel Nwaelele helping Nigerian prospects to become better perimeter shooters. Speaking of Senegal, former NBA forward Boris Diaw could be another intriguing option to be a coach for the country.

While he was born and raised in France, Diaw has ancestral ties to the nation and could fit in nicely within the French-speaking country. More importantly, Diaw would be a great person to teach young Senegalese forwards about how to shine in modern-day pro hoops as his past work as a sharp-shooter with fantastic passing skills was ahead of it’s time when he was in the NBA.

When it comes to the young coaches, this experience would be beneficial as they’d be able to prove that they can work within a coaching staff and help develop young players. Those two traits could allow them to be intriguing options to become a head coach in the G League or assistant for an NBA or NCAA team.

From the perspective of the players, that tuteleage should obviously help them become better on the court with both basketball IQ and just becoming more skilled. Meanwhile, working under former pros should help them grow as human beings as they’ll learn about the day-by-day grind of being a pro athlete.

Obviously, the different things that those prospects learned can allow them to be incredible assets for their particular BAL squad. After that season wraps up, it would make sense for those elite African prospects to look to the G League as that next step in their basketball development. According to a 2017 article from ESPN’s Jonathan Givony, prospects in each of the seven NBA academies could make up the roster of a G League team that would start up in Mexico City. While Adam Silver stated in December 2018 that an announcement regarding a G League team in Mexico City would come “in a few weeks”, there hasn’t been an update on that as of the time of this piece.

Would it be the best idea to just pair these top African prospects with young players from other NBA Academies on just a singular G League team? That’s definitely a topic that should be discussed more thoroughly on a future date. However the upside of a pipeline that goes from the NBA Academy, BAL to the G League is evident for all sides.

From the perspective of both the BAL and the NBA Academy, their alums competing in the G League will only bring more prestige and intrigue to both entities as it’ll prove that they can produce quality basketball players. Meanwhile, more international prospects competing in the G League should only help establish itself as a real minor league that features prospects from all around the basketball world.

Although we’re still around eleven months away from the Basketball Africa League (BAL) officially tipping off, it’s already clear that the league has a lot of ridiculous amount upside. From a local perspective, the league will allow fans from Egypt to South Africa and everyone in between to watch and enjoy a quality basketball league. That should help the local communities as the cities that the games are played in become hot spots for folks from surrounding areas that are interested in the new basketball league that was orchestrated by both the NBA and FIBA.

In addition to that, the BAL could also inspire some young basketball players through the vast continent. At this point, most African players, no matter if they’re in Nigeria, Egypt or Kenya have to travel to Europe or the United States to grow their games due to a lack of a high-quality leagues within their country or continent. However, that might be the case anymore as the BAL could give young players an opportunity to stay closer to home while being able to develop as a basketball prospect.

When it comes to its potential impact in the grand scheme of the basketball world, there’s a lot to be excited about. As we’ve gone over in this piece, there’s real potential for an NBA-related development pipeline that connects from the NBA Academy in Senegal to the BAL to the G League and beyond. Alongside the development of those young players, the BAL should also be a good way for aspiring coaches to gain experience and improve on their own craft.

While we’ll have to wait another 11 months until the first game of the inaugural BAL season, it’s clear that the league has a lot of upside that can make a positive impact on both the countries that the league’s teams are in and the future of basketball.