Did the Zaire Wade experiment work, and what the heck happened to Petro? - BAL 2023 review

After the 2021 COVID-19 bio bubble and the 2022 format experiment, 2023 was the season to put the potential of the Basketball Africa League (BAL) on full display.

All four of the semi-finalists looked fully capable of winning the tournament, while ABC Fighters also fielded a team in the playoffs which had potential to go all the way. Therefore, nearly half of the 12 BAL teams at least gave themselves a decent chance of becoming champions.

But it was Al Ahly who walked away with the title, a second for an Egyptian team after Zamalek won the bubble edition, while Senegal's AS Douanes provided the shock of the season by reaching the final when they beat favourites Petro de Luanda.

Tougher at the top

Al Ahly were able to field arguably the most complete and consistent roster that the BAL has ever seen, though one could also make a case for Angola's Petro de Luanda, who had finished third and then second in the seasons prior.

That said, teams came more prepared for 2023 than any other season before it, as Ahly coach Augustí Julbe said in his post-match press conference after winning the title and repeating his 2021 triumph with Zamalek.

Julbe said: "This championship is different to the first season with Zamalek. Maybe in season 1, I can say not all the teams were prepared or understood what it is to play championships like this and only three or four teams were really competitive at the highest level and we came out with a win.

"I think honestly, the basketball level of this season is way higher."

The quality of the competition also saw the likes of Stade Malien, a little-fancied side from Mali, win the Sahara Conference in Dakar, and beating Cape Town Tigers in the quarterfinals in Kigali. It was a dream run, ended only by eventual champs Ahly, and saw Aliou Diarra awarded the tournament's defensive MVP title.

Wade and Young a credit to the Combine

The BAL Combine was introduced in January, ahead of the season in March, and produced some notable storylines -- the highest profile of which was Zaire Wade (Cape Town Tigers).

The Tigers, who got rid of Dhieu Deing at the eleventh hour ahead of the tournament long after signing Wade, could have handled the process of signing Miami Heat legend Dwyane Wade's son more smoothly. However, once he was thrown in the deep end, he did the best he could considering he hadn't played in nearly a year due to injury.

Having started the Nile Conference in Cairo as a bench player for the Tigers, Wade progressed to a starter, but injury kept him out of the final Conference game and the playoffs and the Tigers did not replace him for their quarter-final defeat to Stade Malien.

The ankle injury was another event beyond Wade's control, but the 21-year-old had already made a positive impact by then, not only with his decent play, but by attempting to learn Zulu and integrating himself into his new team as best he could.

While Wade was somewhat of a success story for the Tigers, he was not the star player from the Combine. Indeed, the true star of the BAL Combine was Beira's Najeal Young, who flew under the radar while everyone was watching the Wades.

Young finished the season with the highest points average (20.2) of any player who made it as far as the playoffs. He narrowly missed out on being the BAL Scoring Champion - an honour which was bestowed upon Falando Jones (21.6 PPG), who played for the City Oilers, who were eliminated in the Nile Conference.

Young told ESPN of his mind state heading into the BAL Combine: "My career was kind of up in the air at that point. I didn't know if I was going to have a job again especially after everything fell through in the G League, I wasn't sure how my career was going to go. There was a chance it could be over, so I had to deal with that reality too.

"Personally, I think I showed that I can be a certain kind of caliber of player and that I can play on a high-level stage and help teams win."

The combine in Paris, held in January, was clearly successful in leading to players who were desperate for an opportunity in Africa to sign for teams who genuinely brought out their best qualities.

Other examples were Makhtar Gueye, who was Young's Beira teammate, and ABC Fighters' Chudier Bile, both of whom showed flashes of brilliance too, but on a less consistent basis.

Petro, and Angola, left with plenty to ponder

The upset of the tournament was AS Douanes' semi-final win over Petro de Luanda, who were pre-tournament favourites. It was a moment which may prove to be a tipping point in African basketball, as few expected Petro or Ahly to be beaten by anybody other than each other.

Petro then lost the third-place playoff game against Malien, looking tired and uninspired, thus leaving the BAL with not even a podium place after getting to the semifinals unbeaten all season.

For Angola to remain a superpower of African basketball, they will have to replace the outgoing golden generation, which dominated African basketball to such an extent that they won AfroBasket six times in a row from 1999 to 2009, and many of their veterans who've stayed on for years afterwards.

Carlos Morais, Petro's captain, won his first AfroBasket in 2005 and is still the leader of a club side he first joined in 2001. However, Aboubacar Gakou pointed out that Morais aside, the golden generation has already made way for a new group of players, which he believes can step up and bring more trophies home despite their BAL disappointment.

"I think it's possible, because we only have one old guy, Carlos - our best player. We're all young, 26, 25, Lukeny Gonçalves is 27," he said in the mixed zone.

The age of the Egyptian hoops empire

For Egypt, the tournament was yet another sign that their project to restore their dominance of African basketball in the early 1960s is well on track.

"As you can tell, a lot of kids come and watch the games. The game has been growing a lot. Thanks to the BAL and the Egyptian Federation, the game has been growing tremendously like football has been the whole time here," former Oregon guard Ehab Amin told ESPN of the growth of the game in Egypt.

Center Omar Oraby added: "Now, I think it's the most players we've had in Division I basketball. I think we've got six... We have a lot of players in the NBA Academy, a lot of young talent coming up. That's all going to help the country and help the continent grow the sport."

With Ahly, Zamalek and Al Ittihad all regularly competing for titles in Egypt, they have shown that the best way for a federation to produce BAL champions is to sort their own house at and ensure they have a competitive league at home.

Due to the spectacle that was BAL Season 3, it is likely that many other countries across Africa will soon follow their example.

BAL Elevate starlets shine brightly

Ahly were the winners, but an equally important success story was that of the BAL Elevate Program, which in 2023 was changed from an allocation process into a draft.

Each BAL team was given the opportunity to select an NBA Africa Academy talent for their roster and the likes of Khaman Maluach (AS Douanes), Rueben Chinyelu (Stade Malien) and Ulrich Chomche (REG) ended up playing vital roles for their respective sides.

At the age of 16, South Sudanese center Maluach started the final, looking comfortable in a vital game against seasoned professionals. Former Memphis guard Chris Crawford, an important senior teammate, backed Maluach to make the NBA.

Crawford told ESPN: "He's 7-foot-2, but every time I speak to him and he's around, he reminds me that he's 16 years old, but he's a hard worker and he's very vocal.

"That's what I love about him the most - he's active, he wants to learn, he asks questions, but the best thing about him is that he's vocal - he's not afraid to speak his mind... I feel like he's going to have a great future ahead.

"Khaman should definitely be a lottery pick one in the next few years. However he does in the side, I feel like he's going to be there. He's going to have a great NBA future ahead of him, because he has that confidence with him, that swagger with him already, and all he has to do is keep putting that work in."