The immense potential of the NBA Academies venture was on full display in the Czech Republic this past week. Also on display was just how far it has to go to become a consistent producer of NBA talent.
After opening its doors in Senegal only seven months ago, the NBA Academy Africa -- one of six across the world that provides teenagers with NBA-level coaching, facilities and competition, while also stressing educational development -- took its first trip ever to Europe for a series of competitive games intended to continue the development process of the 14 players on its roster, hailing from Senegal, Nigeria, Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Benin and Central African Republic.
There were some extreme highs -- wins over Paris Levallois' junior team in France and a shocking upset of European youth basketball powerhouse Red Star Belgrade, which is the team that went on to comfortably win the championship game of the Get Better Academy Invitational.
But the long path ahead of the Academies and African basketball also was clear -- exemplified by double-digit leads squandered, point-blank layups missed, defensive and boxout assignments blown, a huge number of turnovers and missed 3-pointers -- as this group of teenagers, ranging from 14 to 19 years old, continue their quest to develop into professional athletes and represent their countries and continent in U.S. colleges, European basketball leagues and maybe one day, the NBA.
It was easy to see what makes Africa so tantalizing to the NBA. Idou Dianko Badji of Senegal just turned 15 years old two months ago, but already stands 7-foot-1, with a chiseled and highly proportioned frame, an incredible 7-6 wingspan, exceptional mobility, good hands and a real competitive streak that shined through in every game.
The 14-year-old Abdoul Halil Barre from Benin stands 6-9 with long arms and huge feet that indicate he still has plenty more room to continue to grow and fill out. He has barely played any organized basketball, but already shows a strong feel for the game, particularly on the defensive end, to go along with poise and an intensity level that scouts love to see in a young player.
It's these type of players that had NBA scouts assembled in Prague salivating at the raw potential the academy can hopefully turn out as it continues to iron out the kinks and figure out the best way to navigate this monumental endeavor. The NBA is facing immense challenges in making its academy in Africa (as well as the facilities in China, India, Mexico and, to a lesser extent, Australia) a viable venture, which will likely take years.
There are more than 1,000 languages spoken in Africa, and it's simply not currently feasible for the NBA to offer an academic curriculum in anything besides French or English, which limits the locations from which they can recruit players, especially those from very remote areas. That's why traditional basketball hotbeds such as Angola (official language: Portuguese), Egypt (Arabic), Tunisia (Arabic) and South Sudan aren't represented currently, but might be eventually.
While the Academy waits for a new practice facility to be completed in Saly, Senegal, a beach resort area where the players reside and attend school, they are forced to commute two hours round trip to SEED (Sports for Education and Economic Development) Academy in Thies, Senegal, for court time, something they only do three times per week, which has slowed their development.
With the new and reportedly extremely impressive facility nearing completion, the NBA will be one step closer to increasing the capacity of the Africa Academy to 24 and having two separate teams developing side by side. Once scouting and talent identification is fully in place -- spearheaded by highly respected former Dallas Mavericks scout Luca Desta -- the Academy should be able to bring in younger and more talented players, which will ease the development process.
While developing long, defensive-minded big men has always been prevalent, teams from Africa historically have had challenges finding enough guards, playmakers and perimeter shooting to keep opponents honest, something the NBA Academy group definitely struggled with in Prague. The heavy investment the NBA is making in coaching and skill development at all the various academies should reap fruit once the right young teenagers are identified, but that will take a shift in mentality in these soccer-crazed countries.
The fact that the NBA is easily watched on television in Africa is a great sign for the future of the sport and will likely benefit the league's efforts. And the success of African-born players such as Joel Embiid (Cameroon), Serge Ibaka (Republic of the Congo), Emmanuel Mudiay (Democratic Republic of the Congo), Gorgui Dieng (Senegal), Luol Deng (South Sudan), Bismack Biyombo (Democratic Republic of the Congo) and Thon Maker (South Sudan) shows that it's only a matter of having the right infrastructure and coaching in order to develop the ball skills and feel for the game needed to be successful in the NBA. Successful European-born players with African roots such as Giannis Antetokounmpo (Nigeria), Dennis Schroder (Gambia) and Frank Ntilikina (Rwanda) have further proven this.
The leading scorer at the GBA Invitational was none other than 6-7 Congolese wing Patrick Mwamba, who averaged more than 20 points per game while shooting 55 percent from 2 and 29 percent for 3 over the course of four games. Mwamba, who just turned 18, was one of the first players to join the Africa Academy in May, along with Senegalese wing Cheikh Faye, who is enrolling in Florida-based Chipola Community College next month. Mwamba and Faye are the exact type of players who would have greatly benefited from being discovered and brought to the Academy at age 14 instead of at 17 or 18.
While his body has clearly improved and his shooting and ballhandling have come a long way, Mwamba's passing ability and overall feel for the game are still a major work in progress. He just hasn't had the experience he needs to develop his all-around game against the type of competition he faced in Prague. That shouldn't stop him from becoming a very productive college player, if he's able to make strides with his English and get eligible academically, but it does put somewhat of a ceiling on his long-term upside. The academy coaching staff, led by former professional basketball player and NCAA assistant Roland Houston, praised Mwamba's toughness, leadership and character effusively.
The next four or five years will tell us quite a bit about the direction that the NBA Academy venture -- and African basketball -- will head. Can the right facilities, coaching, nutrition plan, strength and conditioning program, skill development and academic curriculum expedite the progress of this incredibly talented continent and continue to bolster the NBA? The league has made an ambitious gamble on its academy venture, including investing significant resources, and will be hoping to see results coming down the pipeline.
This is all happening while two of the three heavy-hitting sneaker companies, Adidas and Under Armour, are undergoing major financial and public relations challenges. According to sources at both companies, they are likely to scale back their investments in the amateur basketball space. These sneaker companies, along with powerhouse Nike (which will ultimately likely become the academy's official outfitter and sponsor) traditionally fund and see the majority of talent funneling through their various camps, AAU leagues and other events.
This change will open up a vacuum that someone will look to fill as early as this spring and summer, particularly in the U.S. Considering the sheer volume of African prospects that end up in American high schools and AAU teams, the shift will undoubtedly be felt on this side of the ocean, as well as in Europe, where the venerable Adidas Eurocamp is on life support.
Eventually, the NBA's hope is to be able to outrecruit the traditional youth teams in Europe and prep schools in the U.S. that have been the customary pathways for elite African prospects at the age of 15 or 16, possibly with the assistance of the newly founded Jr. NBA World Championship venture, which should provide a feeder system for the NBA Academies.
In a few years, it's possible that we may see top international prospects such as N'Faly Dante, Mali/Sunrise Academy (Kan.); Oumar Ballo, Mali/CBA Academy Spain; Charles Bassey, Nigeria/Aspire Academy (Ky.); Paul Eboua, Cameroon/Stella Azzurra Italy, and others staying in Africa to develop under the watchful eyes of NBA coaches before entering college or joining the professional ranks. The league could also elect to get more involved with the development of elite basketball talents in the U.S., which many suspect is ultimately the end game for Adam Silver & Co.