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Prospects get chance to shine in Basketball Africa League

They’re refining skills of young prospects at the NBA Academy in Africa. The vocabulary, too.

“There is a word that really we don’t like, which is ‘raw,‘” said Franck Traore, head of basketball operations for NBA Africa. “When you have an African player going to the U.S., they say ‘raw.’”

Several academy prospects are playing in the new season of the Basketball Africa League, hoping to gain valuable experience in a professional setting and show that their game is more polished than many think.

Now in its third season, the league was created by the NBA in partnership with FIBA to help grow the sport in Africa. It’s a three-month, Champions League-style competition for African club teams.

They added a twist last season with each of the 12 teams being assigned an academy prospect — called the “BAL Elevate” program that’s in place this campaign, too.

The young players have to earn minutes on rosters full of veterans. It’s another opportunity — along with various tournaments that the NBA Academy shuttles the kids to around the world — for the prospects prove themselves.

Academy alum Babacar Sane played in the BAL and other events last year and jumped to the G League Ignite, where the 6-foot-6 Senegalese player is in the first season of a two-year contract. Thierry Darlan, a 6-foot-7 point guard from the Central African Republic, is expected to do the same.

Sane and Darlan — both considered future NBA draft picks — are helping change the profile of African recruits.

“It’s not a hurtful word or anything,” Traore said of the “raw” tag. “But we’re trying to develop programs so when an African player developed here on the continent gets to the U.S. or anywhere else in the world they have the skillset — the same or even better than what we have in the U.S. We’re getting to that point at this moment.”

GAME CHANGE?

At 6-foot-3, Joy Ighovodja isn’t the typical recruit out of Africa. The 18-year-old Nigerian will be playing next season at Oral Roberts, which lost to Duke in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

“I’ve not really seen point guards coming out of Nigeria,” said Ighovodja, whose 6-foot-10 wingspan intrigued scouts last summer at the NBA Academy Games in Atlanta.

“The normal thing people think is Nigeria, Africa as a whole, we’re good on defense, run the floor,” he said. “The mentality is they have these big strong guys that get rebounds and play in the paint — not point guards.”

Ighovodja, who is playing with the Abidjan team for the BAL season, is a lefty who started playing basketball four years ago, initially as a shooting guard. Coaches like him as a point guard, he said, “to create opportunities for myself and my teammates” with his speed, athleticism and ball-handling.

His team, the ABC Fighters, has advanced to the playoffs in May but the teenager has played in only one game so far under coach Liz Mills.

“I just have to gain the coach’s trust. I’m getting there,” Ighovodja said recently.

Other academy guards include Modou Thiam, who averaged 7.8 points per game for Nigerian team Kwara, and Aginaldo Neto. Although Neto is not playing in BAL, the Angolan is “one of the best upcoming point guards that we have,” Traore said.

“We’re just looking at everybody — it’s not even size or position,” he added. “Right now, the game is going position-less. Here, we identify by potential.”

BAL GAMES

The academy has bigs in the BAL, too.

Rueben Chinyelu (6-foot-10) is making significant contributions with Stade Malien before the 19-year-old Nigerian heads to Washington State. He is averaging 5.4 points and a team-high 8.8 rebounds per game. More than half of his rebounds have been on the offensive end.

Ulrich Chomche (6-foot-11) is averaging 1.6 blocks and 20.5 minutes per game for Rwandan team REG, along with five points and seven rebounds per game. The 17-year-old Cameroonian also played in BAL last year and does not lack confidence.

Khaman Maluach (7-foot-1) of South Sudan is only 16 and helped Senegalese team A.S. Douanes advance to the playoffs. Maluach is a strong finisher, a rim protector and has flashed 3-point range.

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