Over the course of the last five or six years, we’ve witnessed the NBA and some of its athletes devoting quite a bit more attention to Africa.
We’ve seen league stars holding clinics, NBA-sponsored competitions and outreach programs, and so on, all aimed at expanding interest and fostering player development throughout continent.
The effort appears to be expanding and paying off, and at least one African player in the NBA believes it’s going to pay off in the form of more stars emerging from the continent. Speaking about his own participation in the NBA’s first ever game in France recently, DR Congo’s Bismack Biyombo spoke about the NBA’s impact in Africa.
In addition to stating that he believes there will soon be an NBA game played somewhere in Africa (which he indicated he’d like to be involved with), Biyombo made the point that with an enhanced NBA presence on the continent, promising young players will no longer have to make their way to leagues in Europe and China in order to earn the attention of professional scouts.
Rather, the scouts will come to them - particularly with the NBA-led BAL (Basketball Africa League) starts up this spring.
It will be fascinating to see what comes of the BAL and increasing NBA interest and investment in general in the coming years and decades. Already though, it is fair to suggest that there is more African influence on the NBA at this precise moment than at any other point in history. Several prominent stars in the league are either from Africa themselves or one generation removed, and it’s not an embellishment to say they’re helping to determine the outcome of the NBA. In fact, U.S.-based betting odds on the league tell the same story, as objectively as possible.
For those who follow the NBA from Africa or elsewhere outside the U.S., it may be of interest to know of these betting odds, given that they’re newly available. Until fairly recently, most of America prohibited betting, which meant that sportsbooks did not operate on a meaningful scale around the country. There are new sportsbooks in the state of New Jersey now though, thanks to some changes in legal oversight - which means that not only betting Americans, but fans around the world can now get a more accurate and objective look at leagues like the NBA. In other words, we don’t have to rely just on writers and analysts to tell us which players are performing best, or which teams are most likely to win. We can look to these new sportsbooks for the mathematical probabilities.
What the sportsbooks have to say about the influential African players in the NBA right now is telling. Now, the exact odds and numbers change slightly from one bookmaking platform to the next. But overall, the picture is clear.
Putting it simply, the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers tend to have some of the top odds to win the NBA Championship in 2020, no matter which of the new American sportsbooks you’re looking at. Often enough, the two Los Angeles teams - the Lakers and Clippers - have the very best odds. But the Bucks an 76ers are the favorites to emerge from the league’s Eastern Conference, despite the 76ers having underachieved so far this season. And those two teams are led by African players.
In the case of the Milwaukee Bucks, it’s Giannis Antetokounmpo leading the way. The “Greek Freak” was born in Athens, but is the son of Nigerian immigrants, and has blossomed into quite possibly the best non-American basketball player in a generation. Antetokounmpo won the NBA’s MVP award for the 2018-19 season, and is likely to do so again this season, potentially while helping his team contend for a title. The 76ers, meanwhile, are an ultra-talented team that will ultimately go as far as Joel Embiid - a native of Yaounde, Cameroon - will take them. Embiid, when healthy, has become professional basketball’s most dominant big man, and many believe he, too has an MVP award in his future.
A little further down in the sportsbooks' odds listings are the Toronto Raptors, who won the title in 2019, but then lost All-NBA talent Kawhi Leonard. While the Raptors aren’t typically treated like contenders among the bookmakers, though, they are given odds that suggest a strong playoff appearance, and that in itself is remarkable given the loss of Leonard. And the Raptors have Pascal Siakam to thank for their continued relevance. Siakam, from Douala, Cameroon, has simply been exceptional this season, stepping into Leonard’s former role as the team’s top talent. He was recently named a starter for the 2020 All-Star Game, and was at one point in the thick of the MVP race (though his winning that award is unlikely at this point).
There are more African players than these three finding success in the NBA. However, looking at the incredible heights Antetokounmpo, Embiid, and Siakam have reached, it’s easy to see why the NBA has such interest in identifying and developing promising players around the continent. If Bismack Biyombo is correct, and the league’s investment in these efforts produces more stars, the three players just covered could wind up representing just the first generation in aa new era of African NBA stars.
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