Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri told ESPN that the Basketball Africa League (BAL) will grow into a league capable of producing players that can play in the NBA regular season, but urged patience with its development efforts.
Ujiri, who has been influential in the NBA’s work in Africa, signed Zamalek star Anas Mahmoud to the Raptors’ Summer League roster last year, making the Egyptian international the first player to jump to the NBA from the BAL.
Mahmoud was followed into the Summer League a year later by the Central African Republic’s Evans Ganapamo (Milwaukee Bucks), but neither BAL star was able to earn a regular season NBA roster spot.
Ujiri, who was in Cairo for the Basketball Without Borders camp, told ESPN: “I think it (the BAL producing NBA players) is going to come.
“Right now, we have the league in a couple of phases before the finals, so it’s going to have to become a regular league in some kind of way and I know Amadou [Gallo Fall, the BAL president] is working strongly on that. We have the right ingredients.
“The truth is: leagues take a while to build. The NBA took a while to build. The [English] Premiership took a while to build. These things take a long time — the WNBA has taken a while to build. It just doesn’t happen overnight. We’re talking about the third season [of the BAL in 2023].
“Later, the talent is really going to maybe marinate a little bit on the continent and the goal is to build the continent [to a point] where players are interested in playing in the league here, but obviously, the NBA is the biggest basketball league in the world and the biggest talent is going to go there for now.”
Ujiri was co-directing this year’s Basketball Without Borders (BWB) Africa camp, with Cleveland Cavaliers general manager Mike Gansey, LA Clippers scout Lance Blanks, and World Association of Basketball Coaches president Patrick Hunt joining him.
Ujiri has been a director of BWB since 2003, when the youth development camp — organised by the NBA and FIBA — first arrived in Africa. He has not missed an edition on the continent since then, although the previous two before this year were cancelled due to COVID-19.
The 52-year-old, who was born in Bournemouth, England, to a Nigerian family, had a modest playing career but subsequently developed into a highly successful scout and later executive.
One challenge he faces with BWB is to ensure that youngsters who, like him, are not good enough to play in the NBA but can serve the game in other capacities, are not lost to the system.
Ujiri explained: “I think you have to maximise basketball and when you maximise basketball, basketball gives you the ability to open other doors. We teach these kids to take their talent to the furthest and best that they can get it when they play.
“Through that, you’re going to get a scholarship here, you’re going to get an opportunity to go places, you’re going to get opportunities to network, opportunities to compete and win and you’re going to get opportunities to have some adversity. This creates us as people.
“Sometimes, our talent is not good enough. I was the same way. I wasn’t good enough to even play at a higher level in Europe. Then, I started to develop coaching and started to have a feeling that maybe coaching was something I wanted to do. That’s how scouting came about and these kids can do so many things these days in sports.
“You can be a sports administrator, a sports doctor, a sports lawyer. You can be an agent, you can be a coach, you can work in the medical field, you can be in sports entertainment.
“These kids have to realise that after they’ve really, really pushed their talent and their opportunity as much as they can, this could be a scholarship to a university in your town, in Australia, in the US – you can go play college basketball. There are so many players who have developed to become something else in their careers.”
Reflecting on the progress BWB has made in producing NBA-level talent, Ujiri said: “The talent has come a long way. There are many more opportunities now.
“You think about the camps – BWB, the FIBA camps, Giants of Africa camps, the SEED [Academy] camps. All these players are doing basketball camps. Al-Farouq Aminu just had one, Pascal Siakam just had one, Luc Mbah a Moute has his, Luol Deng has his. There are so many of them going on [across] the continent… Bismack Biyombo just had his in the Congo, Serge Ibaka – all these guys are coming and giving back.
“Also, kids are now seeing that these kids can make it. Just on my team, Precious Achiuwa came from Giants of Africa, Pascal Siakam came from BWB, Christian Koloko — who we have just drafted — came from BWB. Kids see this – that there is opportunity – they are getting coached. Look at the standard of coaches that even come here.”
Steve Kerr (Golden State Warriors), Chauncey Billups (Portland Trail Blazers), Willie Green (New Orleans Pelicans), Chris Finch (Minnesota Timberwolves) and Wes Unseld Jr. (Washington Wizards) were the current NBA head coaches present at the camp in Cairo this past week.
“We are proud. There is plenty of work to be done. We are so proud that this camp has this level of prospects and this level of talent,” Ujiri said.
“They continue to grow – the coaches continue to grow and the game continues to grow on the continent.”