The NBA is stepping up its ambitions to grow its African player pool

The NBA Africa game.
The NBA Africa game.
Image: AP Photo/Themba Hadebe
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For much of the past decade, Africa has been central to the NBA’s international outreach.

Seeking to grow the popularity of the league, and basketball, the NBA has held training camps for kids on the continent through its Basketball Without Borders program. Last year, South Africa also hosted the continent’s first ever NBA Africa game featuring some of basketball’s biggest past and present stars. But now, the NBA is turning its attention to sourcing the league’s next superstars more consistently from the continent and will open its first African training academy in Senegal in 2017.

The academy will become a part of NBA’s global network of academies which include three in China and another in India, and will train both boys and girls aged between 16 and 18, Amadou Gallo Fall, NBA’s vice-president for Africa, told BBC. Furnished with NBA-standard facilities, Fall says the training academy will scout and develop players across the continent with hopes of making it into America’s big leagues.

Recent evidence suggests that’s not improbable with as many as four Africans who passed through NBA’s training camps on the continent being on the league’s roster this year. In total, since the NBA’s first Basketball Without Borders Africa training camp in 2003, nine African campers have been drafted into the NBA.  One of those Senegal’s Gorgui Dieng who plays for Minnesota Timberwolves took part in NBA’s Basketball Without Borders camp in 2009 in South Africa. A star at the camp, Dieng moved to West Virginia to attend Huntington Prep, a basketball-focused college preparatory school. Dieng went on to play college basketball for the University of Louisville and was a first round pick in the 2013 NBA draft. But while all trainees won’t make it to the NBA like Dieng, Fall says ”other great leagues around the world, including the NBA development league or in US universities” could prove viable alternatives.

NBA’s Africa academy will offer young Africans a direct path to the league—an invaluable opportunity given the perils of falling prey to phony international agents. Without any contacts and knowledge of the workings of international transfers, African hopefuls often end up in a nightmare situation while chasing their American dream. Orlando Magic’s Bismack Biyombo, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, knows about that risk more than most. Biyombo’s journey to the NBA came via jail time as a teenager in Tanzania and a detour in Yemen where he often went without meals before finally ending up in Europe and then the NBA.

In recent decades, a crop of African basketball stars have graced the NBA. One of those, Nigerian Hakeem Olajuwon, went on to be named one of the 50 greatest NBA players of all time after winning two NBA championships with the Houston Rockets in 90s. More recently, others like DRC’s Dikembe Mutombo whose number 55 jersey has been retired by the Atlanta Hawks and Denver Nuggets, and current Los Angeles Lakers’ forward Luol Deng have also helped boost the league’s popularity on the continent. But with its Africa training academy, the NBA will hoping to turn a trickle of African-born stars into a steady stream.