Africa's NBA presence is more than Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid

ByLeonard Solms ESPN logo
Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Last season, Philadelphia 76ers power forward Joel Embiid, from Yaoundé, Cameroon, won the NBA MVP award, an historic moment for African basketball.

After Hakeem Olajuwon (1994), Embiid was only the second player born on the continent to win the MVP Award. Two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, it must be noted, was not born in Africa but in Greece, and acquired a Nigerian passport in 2015.

In Embiid and Antetokounmpo, the NBA therefore already has two African superstars whose stock can hardly rise any higher, but there are others knocking on the door who will hit new heights in 2023-24.

This includes past breakout players looking to take the step up to stardom and already established stars looking to become superstars.

Pascal Siakam (Toronto Raptors)

Douala, Cameroon's Siakam is already an NBA star, having twice earned All-Star selection and won an NBA championship in 2019, but unlike his compatriot, Embiid, he has not yet earned All-NBA First Team honors or been an MVP contender.

Although he is 29 years old already, Siakam might not yet be at his peak. He only moved to the United States at 18, after being spotted by Luc Mbah a Moute in Cameroon, and had little interest in basketball as a child.

It is not unusual for late bloomers in various sports, who grew up with limited exposure to formal academies, to hit their peaks later in their careers than their peers. Examples in soccer include Didier Drogba and Ian Wright, while in basketball, Dennis Rodman was a late bloomer and it could be argued that even Embiid himself is, too.

Siakam has improved his points-per-game average almost year upon year in both the regular season and playoffs. His upward trajectory since being drafted in 2016 could hardly have been steadier.

The Raptors had a less than ideal season in 2022-23, but a perfect preseason suggests that they have turned a corner.

Scottie Barnes is becoming a leader of the team in his own right, but make no mistake about it - there is absolutely still space for Siakam to do so alongside him and soar to even greater heights, joining Embiid and Antetokounmpo in the NBA stratosphere.

Jonathan Kuminga (Golden State Warriors)

Born in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kuminga is already an established NBA player, and if the world stopped today, the forward would have already achieved enough to be proud of his career.

With 137 NBA regular season appearances, 26 NBA playoffs appearances and a championship ring, he has achieved more in two seasons with the Golden State Warriors than a significant portion of players manage in an entire league career.

However, because he was rated one of the world's brightest prospects from a young age and was the seventh overall pick in the 2021 NBA draft, expectations for Kuminga - both from others and from himself - go far beyond the norm.

He alluded to this himself in an interview with ESPN at Basketball Without Borders Africa in Johannesburg this July, but pledged this year to live up to his promise.

"This upcoming season is definitely the year," Kuminga said. "A lot of people are expecting so much from me - and myself; I'm expecting a lot. It's a lot of pressure, but I don't really pay attention to the noise. The pressure is always going to be there. It's just [on] me to go out there and perform."

So far, Kuminga has backed his words up with action. In preseason for the Warriors, he averaged 21.8 points per game - more than double his regular season average in each of the last two seasons - shooting 45.8% from three and 54.7% from the field.

Warriors coach Steve Kerr said recently that we should expect Chris Paul to have a major impact on Kuminga's game, and if we really do see the best of Kuminga this season, then we certainly have not seen the last of his team as championship contenders.

Bol Bol (Phoenix Suns)

Born in Khartoum, Sudan, the son of NBA legend Manute Bol is ready to step up and fill his father's shoes this season with the Phoenix Suns.

Former All-Star Tim Hardaway Sr controversially claimed that Bol is a better talent than Victor Wembanyama. Given the expectations, the 23-year-old will be hungry to better last season's averages of 9.1 points and 5.8 rebounds per game.

Having moved to the Suns from the Orlando Magic, he is now in a more competitive roster, but one which could yield better output for him if he is able to lock down some solid minutes.

Playing alongside established stars such as Kevin Durant and Devin Booker, Bol has the ability to grow from a 23-year-old recent breakout player to the NBA star his fans believe him to be.

He faces stiff competition in the center position from Jusuf Nurkic and Drew Eubanks. Bol is unlikely to usurp Nurkic in particular, but his versatility and athletic prowess mean he could contribute anywhere and everywhere on the court.

Bol made use of his 10 minutes on the floor in the Suns' last preseason game, picking up six points and a rebound in a win over the Los Angeles Lakers.

Precious Achiuwa (Toronto Raptors)

Born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, Achiuwa averaged 9.2 points and 6 rebounds per game in the 2022-23 regular season. After a breakout season in 2021-22, it was not quite the follow-up he would have hoped for, but the 24-year-old power forward/center still posted respectable stats and has shown promising signs in preseason.

Against the Washington Wizards, Achiuwa shut down the supremely talented Jordan Poole, restricting him to 1-15 shooting and 7 points as the Raptors won 134-98. Achiuwa contributed 9 points, 6 rebounds and 3 assists in 17 minutes on the floor.

Like Kuminga, Achiuwa was one of the most sought-after high school basketball players in the US. Like Embiid, he is an alumnus of Montverde Academy in Florida.

Achiuwa has a special relationship with Raptors president Masai Ujiri, having come through his Giants of Africa program, which has helped over 40,000 African youngsters in 17 countries get access to resources, including basketball courts, camps and/or scholarships.

This does not mean that Ujiri, who has always been businesslike when it was needed, will do Achiuwa any favors. What it does mean, however, is that he is playing for somebody who has long recognised what he brings to the table.

There is certainly time still for Achiuwa to grow into a bigger role at the Raptors and show the world why he was given his seat.

Gabe Vincent (Los Angeles Lakers)

Gabriel Nnamdi Vincent is already well-known for his time at the Miami Heat, where he reached two NBA championship finals, but having joined the Los Angeles Lakers, the Nigerian international guard will be looking to finally get over the line and add a championship ring to his CV.

He has already come forward in leaps and bounds in the five years since he went undrafted and ended up playing G League for the Stockton Kings. He won the G League's Most Improved Player Award for the 2019-20 season, but was a bit-part player in the NBA that season, which was his first in Heat colors after being signed in January 2020.

That stands in stark contrast with last season, which saw him average 9.4 points per game in the regular season and 12.7 points per game in the playoffs - both career highs.

He has moved to Darvin Ham's Lakers, who are well into their rebuilding process, at the right time to challenge for championships. Ham emphasized in an interview with ESPN that depth was the one factor he felt was missing last season for the Lakers.

Vincent was singled out as one of the players who could help bridge the gap between where they were and where they need to be, and playing alongside the likes of LeBron James and Anthony Davis, he has all the tools he needs to succeed.

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