Will the NBA ever see another athlete like Joel Embiid? Raptors GM Masai Ujiri sure thinks so. Ujiri heads the Giants of Africa organization, which uses basketball "as a means to educate and enrich the lives of African youth," their mission statement reads. That's why the Raptors GM, who was born and raised in Nigeria, can speak with experience when opining on the state of basketball on a continent comprised of 54 countries often lumped together as one amorphous country when it's really a hodgepodge of different dialects, cultures and histories, particularly when it comes to Western imperialism. Ujiri noted this problem during a celebration dubbed the "Mandela 100" that led up to Wednesday night's clash between Ujiri's Raptors and the visiting 76ers, which Toronto won 113-102.
The hyped game between two of the top teams in the Eastern Conference featured multiple African immigrants, including Serge Ibaka (Republic of Congo), Joel Embiid (Cameroon), and Pascal Siakam (Cameroon). Ujiri spoke to the Vancouver Courier before the game, and offered an interesting vantage point on the continent of Africa, and the organizational difficulties that have so far prevented it from being the rich recruiting ground it could be.
"Once we can have some sort of league [in Africa]," Ujiri said on Tuesday, "it's going to blow up because you can see that there is talent. It's a gold mine."
Ujiri says he's "confident" that there are "10 Embiids walking around, there are 10 whoevers walking around in Africa." What makes him so sure? "There are people who have gone through their lives that have that athletic ability who haven't even touched a basketball," he explained. "They never had the courts, they never had the opportunity. That's why it's a gold mine and people are starting to realize it now."
That's quite a statement. Embiid might be the best big in the NBA already, so to say there might be nine more players of his caliber on the continent, but there's not enough framework in place to find them, is rather stunning to fathom. It calls to mind the outdated notions on display in the Kevin Bacon movie, The Air Up There. But Ujiri is clearly a man who knows what he's talking about.
The latest UN estimates say there are over 1.3 billion people currently residing in Africa, which is a pretty large pool from which to pluck the next NBA superstar from. But it'll take investment and time to develop the necessary connections to make that a reality. A grid has to be in place where young ballers can be identified, coached and offered opportunities to grow their game. Africa could be the next Asian market, like China, where the NBA has exploded in popularity over the last couple of decades. But not until that foundation is created, which Ujiri is trying to do.
We're glad FIBA and the NBA are looking to dip their toes in that African investment, even if it doubles as an attempt to grow the NBA brand and open up new revenue streams. Still, capitalism can be a good thing sometimes.