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Teams and players to look out for in the Basketball Africa League

The first season of the Basketball Africa League (BAL) is to take place in Kigali, Rwanda, from 16-30 May. A total of 12 teams from the continent and scores of players from around the world will participate in the competition.

Nigeria’s representative, Rivers Hoopers from Port Harcourt, seem to be one of the league favourites. The three-times Nigerian league champions will be led by Nigerian international Ben Uzoh. 

Uzoh is one of the most experienced signees to the BAL, having played in the National Basketball Association (NBA) with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Brooklyn Nets and Toronto Raptors as well as professional stints in Europe and Mexico. 

Uzoh won the 2015 Afrobasket with Nigeria and also competed at the 2016 Olympics and 2019 Basketball World Cup for the national side. He has a formidable supporting cast, with NBA G-League (NBA’s lower division) veterans Chris Daniels, who played for Team USA at the AmeriCup Qualifying tournament in February, and Taren Sullivan. Ugandan international Robinson Opong will be a go-to scorer for the team.

Angola has earned a reputation as one of the best basketball-playing nations on the continent over the past 30 years and Petro Luanda has been a big reason for this status. As 14-times local league champions and two-times African Club Championship winners (2006 and 2015), Petro enters the BAL as serious title contenders. 

The team boasts a highly experienced squad made up of national team stalwarts including Carlos Morais, Leonel Paulo and Melvyn da Silva. But the team’s success will be contingent on the performance of the 2020-21 Angolan league Most Valuable Player (MVP), Aboubakar Gakou. The 23-year-old prodigy plays with a high-level of energy and can be a rebounding and scoring machine if he finds his rhythm during the tournament.

US Monastir is another BAL outfit poised to attract a lot of attention after qualifying as champions of the highly competitive Tunisian league. US Monastir has attained success on the continental scene, finishing third at the 2017 African Clubs Championship. 

Monastir has players from the Tunisian national team, who are regular medal finishers at Afrobasket and participated at the 2019 Basketball World Cup. Nevertheless, Monastir will look to potential BAL MVP, Sudan-born Ater Majok, for on-the-court direction. Majok, who was raised in Australia, was selected by the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2011 NBA Draft, but never suited up for them. Regardless, Majok has enjoyed a successful professional career that has taken him to New Zealand, China and Korea. In Europe, Majok won the national championships of Slovakia and Belarus in 2012 and 2013 and will hope to replicate this success with Monastir. 

AS Salé from Morocco is another contender hoping to make a deep run during the BAL campaign. AS Salé won the 2017 African Club Championship and finished runner-up in 2019, in addition to the seven local titles they have claimed. Like most North African squads, AS Salé relies on their collective strength, more than their individual quality. But Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) international Eric Kibi is a player who can change the club’s fortunes for the better. Kibi last played for Dutch club The Hague Royals and won the AfroCan tournament in 2019 for the DRC. 

All these teams, based on their overall squad strength, experience and competition pedigree, appear to be favourites heading into the tournament, but the BAL season will also feature some players to keep an eye out on.

Early notable players

Harouna Amadou will be the go-to scorer for Cameroonian side Forces Armees et Police (FAP) Basketball. The sharpshooting Amadou, who hails from Niger Republic, finished the BAL qualifying tournament in December 2019, averaging 24.3 points a game for Nigerien side AS NIgelec. 

DRC international Myck Kabongo, of Mozambican side Clube Ferroviário de Maputo, has unfortunately been unable to live up to the potential that saw him named to the McDonald’s All-American team, which identifies the best high school players in the United States and Canada. In spite of this, if Kabongo can put up numbers similar to his playing time at the University of Texas and that have enabled him to be signed by teams in the G-League and across Europe, he will be a joy for supporters of the Maputo club to watch.

Kiady Razanamahenina — remember the name, folks! The French-born guard, who plays for Malagasy squad GNBC, made his name on the African basketball scene during Afrobasket 2021 qualifying matches in November 2020, where he averaged 21 points and 3.5 rebounds for Madagascar. 

Although Madagascar failed to qualify for the tournament, Razanamahenina was a walking highlight reel, routinely pulling off step-back three’s reminiscent of former NBA MVP James Harden. GNBC is one of the unknowns of this tournament but Razanamahenina’s exciting play will make their games a staple fixture to look out for.  

The most surprising BAL player to pay attention to is award-winning and highly acclaimed hip hop artist J Cole (real name Jermaine Cole). Cole was signed by BAL host side Patriots BBC and his signing came as a surprise, and many might see it as a publicity stunt. But, while at St John’s University, Cole made the basketball team and eventually declined to play for them.  On the Patriots team Cole won’t have the task of carrying the Patriots squad — that will fall to Aristide Mugabe, who previously served as the Rwandan national team captain.

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Mbulle-Nziege Leonard
Mbulle-Nziege Leonard is a doctoral candidate at the University of Cape Town and a research analyst at Africa Risk Consulting.

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