If the Eastern Conference threw up an interesting mix of Top 10 Africans to look forward to next season, the West is no less so. From the Sudanese veteran Luol Deng to the relative ‘newcomer’, Nigerian-American Ekpe Udoh, the Western Conference has its own share of exciting African talent worth watching out for next season.
Nigerian-American power forward Ekpe Udoh is heading back to the NBA with the Utah Jazz two years after leaving for Europe. Udoh made his name in college as a shot blocker after leading two different conferences in blocked shots. He then went on to play for the Golden State Warriors, Milwaukee Bucks, and L.A Clippers before heading for two sensational years with Fenerbahce in Turkey. He returns to join a Jazz team reeling from the loss of Gordon Hayward. Ekpe will likely back up Jazz defensive lynchpin Rudy Gobert, but the fact that he can also play at power forward makes him a valuable asset. Udoh was the MVP of the last Euro League Final Four; we will wait and see what that translates into in the NBA.
Tunisian center Salah Mejri has his work cut out in Dallas. He is in the final year of a three-year contract, and has to put in more work to justify an extension. Although the big man played 34 games but started only six in his first season, a bigger role in his second (73 games, 11 starts) didn’t yield an increase in output. The Mavericks now have more options for their frontcourt, and it will be interesting to see how the big Tunisian responds to the challenge of either getting an extension at Dallas, showing his team and teammates his true value as a competitor or even landing a place on the roster of another team if it comes to that.
Cameroonian small forward Luc Mbah a Moute is probably heading into a season that will likely be his best ever in the NBA in terms of deep playoff runs, and the odds are that he will be involved all the way. Mbah a Moute was signed by the Rockets to fill some of the holes left on the bench by the Chris Paul trade, but his well-known defensive prowess and the ability to guard different positions mean the Rockets will need him in the long regular season, and in the expected playoff run. He himself has said he also expects to contribute more on the offensive end this season. How will the Legend of Yaoundé respond? We wait with bated breath.
Malian power forward Cheick Diallo played only 17 games for the New Orleans Pelicans last season. He did not start any, and averaged only 11.7 minutes per game. But, he put up 5.1 points per game and averaged 4.3 boards each night. Good numbers, when you consider that two All-Stars are ahead of him in his favorite positions. Over the summer, he bulked up to 235 lbs (106kg) with 240 lbs in sight, up from the ‘slight’ 220 lbs (99kg) he carried last season, an indication and a testament to his willingness to compete. What did this young Malian learn from his All-Star teammates? The new season will surely tell.
Congolese point guard Emmanuel Mudiay has had two contrasting years in the NBA. He went from starting 66 games and averaging 12.8 ppg and 5.5 apg in his rookie season, to starting just 41 games and averaging 11.0 ppg and 3.9 apg in his sophomore season. But at the NBA Africa Game, Mudiay dropped 22 points and added nine assists and eight rebounds. That near triple-double against marquee opposition is an indication of what he can do … and maybe the Nuggets organization took notice. That is why his upcoming third season will be a definitive one.
South African-Swiss small forward Thabo Sefolosha doesn’t score much for a player listed as ‘shooting guard or small forward’. He is averaging 5.9 ppg over 10 seasons in the NBA; but what the figures don’t tell you, are his abilities as a wing defender. And that is what he brings to the evolving Utah Jazz. Sefolosha saw an increase in his minutes last season: the 42 games he started and the 25.7 minutes per game average were the most he played since he started 61 games and averaged 26 minutes for the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2013/14 season. Will the trend continue? Or will Thabo slide back into the type of limited minutes imposed by injuries? Only time will tell, but we back him to succeed.
Nigerian forward Al-Farouq Aminu has been an NBA enigma. The small forward was selected in the 2010 Draft ahead of Hassan Whiteside, Gordon Hayward and Paul George, but apart from the 2015/16 season where he averaged 10.2 ppg, his career has been relatively disappointing considering his high ceiling. But he is reinventing himself as a small forward, an adding the 3-ball to his undoubted defensive abilities. Stories on the Blazers team begin and end with CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard: will Aminu continue his late development and become a part of the conversation? He will show us this season, that’s why he’s one to watch.
Sudanese-British small forward Luol Deng has put the LA Lakers in a bind … or rather, his contract has. The old front office of the purple and gold signed him to a massive four-year contract, but the new office wants to go younger. What to do? The Lakers now have the option of extending his contract (to clear cap space) or to trade him at a loss (as it would involve losing a coveted younger piece). But there is another option: that Deng perform very well at training camp, and carries the form over into the season thereby earning major playing minutes. Will the unfolding story end with the former or latter scenario? Next season will tell.
Senegalese power forward Gorgui Dieng did well to earn the trust of Tom Thibodeau last season as he started all of the Minnesota Timberwolves’ 82 regular-season games. While his production is not in doubt, the argument against Dieng is that nobody knows the type of player he is: is he a stretch four, a board crasher or an all-round elite defender? Some think Dieng should go after the sixth-man award. Everything is possible, because Dieng has the tools.
Angolan-Swiss center Clint Capela has been of immense help to the victims of the Houston flood. With that in mind he’ll be more than motivated to try to help deliver another championship to Clutch City to help heal the hurt Houston’s residents are feeling. Capela has seen his game improve every season since he was drafted three years ago, that was why the Rockets were willing to release Dwight Howard at the end of the 2015/16 season. Capela’s size wasn’t enough to trouble OKC in the playoffs last season; the youngster needs to add a bit more muscle, then maybe talk can proceed to him averaging double-doubles next season.
By Akinbode Oguntuyi
@booday10 on Twitter