NBA Africa becomes learning ground for young players

Kristaps Porzingis and Dirk Nowitzki of Team World Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

The NBA Africa Game has brought about a frenzied week that has centered on building the game of basketball in Africa through camps and community outreach projects.

It also became a week where younger players in the league had the opportunity to sit down with veterans and exchange knowledge.

"It's a fun environment because usually when you play them in the NBA you just see them on the court and say hi and bye. But here we actually have some time," Dirk Nowitzki said.

The former champion and 2008 MVP has taken a liking to Kristaps Porzingis. With only two years of NBA experience under his belt, the young Latvian has raised the profile of the New York Knicks, a team that has struggled to be competitive in the Eastern Conference. In his first season, he became the first rookie in NBA history to record over 1,000 points, 500 rebounds and 100 blocks.

"He's like what, 20, 21? I mean, the sky is the limit for this kid," Nowitzki said. "He's long, he can move, he can shoot and had a fantastic year last season. He's going to be a great player in this league for a long time."

Porzingis has taken advantage of having direct access to the German forward and used this week to glean pearls of wisdom from arguably the most accomplished and successful foreign-born player in the NBA.

"I have thousands of questions for him," Porzingis quipped. "I have been talking to him all the time. But one thing I want to find out is how he is able to play at that age."

Nowitzki admits that "there is a little bit of luck involved" in sustaining a long career. Outside of two surgeries, he has been relatively healthy. But he does advise players like Porzingis to take care of their bodies: "Work out in the summer. Stay fit. Keep a healthy diet, especially during the season."

These are words that Joel Embiid will take to heart. The Philadelphia 76ers star was the third pick in the 2014 NBA draft but could not play until last season after injuring his foot and suffering delays in recovery. Last season, he played 31 games before sustaining a torn meniscus in his left knee. Earlier in March, Embiid underwent surgery and he has been in recovery since.

When asked which African player he is closest to, without hesitation, Embiid responded that it was Luol Deng. The two-time All-Star can relate to the young Cameroon star as he too has had his fair share of injuries. While playing for the Chicago Bulls, Deng led the league in minutes per game during the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons. But Deng has also had a near-death experience when he had spinal tap complications during the 2013 NBA playoffs.

During Team Africa practice, the 23-year-old Embiid stuck to the 14-year vet like glue. They appeared to be engaged in serious conversation for most of the time but would have occasional spurts of laughter.

"He's helped me to keep getting better as a player. There is a shared respect for each other," Embiid said.