African NBA Academy and BAL stars add global flair to US college landscape

UConn's Jana El Alfy surprised by fans' enthusiasm (0:56)

Jana El Alfy, a rare Egyptian player in the US college basketball system, hopes to impress Huskies fans who have welcomed her with open arms. (0:56)

The US college basketball landscape has become even more global this season as four high-profile African prospects joined Division 1 teams, with the likes of UConn, Oral Roberts, and Louisville reaping the benefits of the NBA Academy and Basketball Africa League's efforts.

Nigeria's Emmanuel Okorafor has had an impressive start to life at Louisville, while countrymen Joy Ighovodja (Oral Roberts) and Rueben Chinyelu (Washington State), as well as Egypt's Jana El Alfy (UConn), are preparing to bring even more African flair to the NCAA Division I in 2023.

Center Ugonna Onyenso has already made his mark with the University of Kentucky and fellow Nigeria international Chinyelu (19), a 6'11" center/power forward, is of similar stature both physically and in terms of the respect he has gained in the game.

"I was fortunate to be recruited by so many wonderful schools," Chinyelu, who was courted by Tennessee, Florida, Kansas, Georgia, Rutgers, Mississippi State, Memphis, Maryland, Santa Clara and others, told ESPN.

"Washington State stood out with their style of play and the experience the coaching staff has with African and international players.

"Playing college basketball with and against other dedicated players who want to win, are hungry and have a big vision for their future and aspire to be the best is something that I'm looking forward to."

Chinyelu played for the NBA Africa team during the NBA G League Winter Showcase in Las Vegas from December 19-22 last year.

El Alfy (17), a 6'4" forward, participated at the NBA Global Academy in Australia in February and March last year. Later, she was the female MVP and Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr's first draft pick at August and September's Basketball Without Borders (BWB) Africa camp in Cairo.

Like Chinyelu, she was unsurprisingly highly sought after. She chose UConn despite interest from the likes of the University of Louisville, Duke University, UCLA, the University of North Carolina and the University of Michigan.

"I always wanted to play for UConn and when I first saw UConn and Coach Geno [Auriemma] and how they're playing and their game, I felt like this is the place for me and that's where I want to go," El Alfy told ESPN.

"All my comments sections are like: 'We're so excited to have you, Jana. Welcome to UConn!' Everyone is just so adorable and this makes me really excited to go to UConn," she added, admitting that she was surprised at the fanfare over her arrival.

International prospects can at times find it difficult to adjust at their colleges, as was initially the case for Egypt's Meral Abdelgawad at WKU. However, Abdelgawad would eventually go on to become a highly successful guard there before returning to Egypt with El Alfy's club, Al Ahly. She was among those from whom El Alfy sought advice on her future.

However, El Alfy believes she has an advantage over most international players as far as adaptability goes, having already been through the daunting process of adjusting to an unfamiliar country in Australia.

"I've thought about [the possibility that the first year at UConn might be difficult], but I don't think it's going to be kind of hard for me, because I went to the NBA Global Academy and it was the same thing. It was similar - I was all alone, just being a foreign player, studying, playing basketball, eating, and repeating every day," she said.

"I'm kind of used to this. I think it's not going to be as hard as for other players who have never been abroad before or just stayed alone. I don't know how to say that, but I think I have an advantage [because] I went to Australia and played before and I was all alone."

El Alfy has enrolled at UConn, and although she is not expected to play in 2022/23, she has the advantage of being able to travel and practice with the team as she settles in.

Although he was not as aggressively scouted as NBA Academy peers like Chinyelu and El Alfy, Ighovodja (18) is another player who has learned from an isolating experience in his career before.

He featured for Rwanda Energy Group (REG) at the BAL under Robert Pack in 2022, but while Chinyelu played an important role for Mozambique's Ferroviário da Beira and Okorafor for Espoir Fukash, Ighovodja only played bit parts.

Nevertheless, the 6'4" small forward/guard found a way to make the most of his first professional experience in basketball, which he earned via the BAL Elevate program which assigned one NBA Africa Academy prospect to each of the 12 teams.

Ighovodja told ESPN: "BAL was a great experience because I was around professionals. I learned a lot even though I wasn't given [much of a] chance to play, maybe because of trust or the way they looked at me as a young player.

"Being around those guys, they helped me grow. If I had any questions, their rooms were always open for me to ask questions and go through videos to learn more about the game.

"In practice, they always pushed me like: 'You can do this. Just see yourself in this position. Everything is all about your mind - how to play big. Don't think you are too small to do something. You can always do anything and fix your mistakes.' BAL helped me a lot and when I went back to the academy, I [had] grown in my mind."

Ighovodja was used to being overlooked, but Oral Roberts won him over by treating him as a special talent.

He added: "Training was hard for me because I was a lefty and it was like I was different from others. I didn't really have many offers to play basketball, but after the [NBA Academy Games] in Atlanta, I had a few schools [interested in me], but it was Oral Roberts pressuring me, telling me what they want, how they would love to work with me.

"They were the first school that organised my official visit. I didn't see myself going for any visits [in 2022], because I thought maybe I wasn't there yet, but they made it possible and I went there. I went to see how the program was. The school was lovely. My teammates were playing great basketball. I didn't want to waste time waiting for or choosing any other school."

Okorafor, a 6'9" power forward who played for DR Congo's Espoir Fukash at the BAL, visited Oral Roberts with Ighovodja, but chose to take a different path, committing to Louisville.

Louisville have been struggling this season in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), but Okorafor is confident he can help them turn the tide. He told ESPN: "Right now, this situation that we are in isn't really a good situation, but I know that I'm a guy who always plays hard.

"I always play hard and give my best to help the team. Playing in the ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference) - playing in Louisville right now - won't be a problem, because I've fitted in a professional league, the BAL.

"That was my first time playing in the BAL and I play hard and I know what I can bring to a team. Definitely, I know I can bring energy to Louisville. I'm going to motivate guys [to believe] we can do it, play hard and give 100% effort for us to win games."

Okorafor has delivered on his promise, with his most impressive performance coming against Notre Dame. Okorafor tallied eight points and five rebounds in 18 minutes of that game.

Thierry Darlan (Central Africa Republic), the Male MVP at BWB Africa this year, told ESPN he remains undecided over his future, despite having officially visited Santa Clara and the University of Arizona - the latter of which he visited along with Cameroonian power forward Ulrich Chomche.

Chomche, who represented FAP at the 2022 BAL and Darlan, a guard who played for Petro de Luanda, also both featured on the NBA Africa Academy roster at the G-League Winter Showcase with the NBA Africa Academy team.

Senegal's Babacar Sané, who was the BAL Elevate player for DUC Dakar last year, signed with G League Ignite in October, as opportunities continue to come thick and fast for the NBA Africa Academy's brightest talents.

Separate to the academy's stars, Emmanuel Ogbole, a 6'9" forward/center from Nigeria's Educational Basketball program - the same one from which Okorafor joined the NBA Academy - is another player to watch, as he has offers from Seton Hall and Rutgers.

In both the men's and women's NCAA Division I, 2023 looks set to be a year marked by some of the most complete homegrown prospects that African basketball has produced.