The 2017 NBA season tips off on Wednesday, October 18, with the two likely finalists in both the Eastern and Western Conference facing off: Boston Celtics at the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Houston Rockets at the Golden State Warriors. But, of interest to Africa, will be the games involving African talent on Thursday. The action is live on Kwesé Sports’ digital and broadcast platforms.
Orlando Magic vs Miami Heat (live on Kwesé Sports 1 on Thursday, Oct 19 from 01:00 CAT)
The Orlando Magic and Miami Heat have different challenges. While the Magic have not hit 50 percent in the wins column in five years, the Heat failed to qualify for the postseason for only the second time in 10 years. Both will start with a clean slate when they face off on Thursday morning. But African eyes will be on the troika of talent from the continent on display. Bismack Biyombo was handed an estimated four-year, $72-million contract by Orlando at the start of last season. The 6.0 points and 7.0 rebounds per game average he posted while playing 22 minutes a night, are not exactly the Magic had hoped for. Orlando will expect to see a resurrection of the Biyombo who started 10-of-20 playoff games in his final season at Toronto, and was unstoppable against the Cavaliers. This game will give an insight into that possibility.
For Evan Fournier, the other player of African decent at the Magic, the attraction will be to see if his steep curve of growth in the league will continue. The 17.2 ppg the shooting guard averaged last season, is a career best. Fournier has improved from the 5.3 ppg average he delivered when he arrived in Denver in 2012, to one of the go-to guys on the Magic roster, and will be important for them again this season. Rookie Wesley Iwundu is also expected to make an appearance for the Magic.
As expected, Miami are easing Bam Adebayo into the league. The Heat star of the Summer League has averaged only 6.5 minutes per game in the first four preseason contests, averaging 2.3 ppg and 1.5 rpg. The Heat are likely to expose him to the same usage in this game, but when he does play he will give it his all.
Boston Celtics vs Milwaukee Bucks
This is another likely playoffs matchup come early, and the whole of the continent will be watching to see how the heir apparent to the NBA golden-boy crown, Giannis Antetokounmpo, matches up to the stacked Eastern Conference powerhouse that is Boston, playing the second of back-to-back nights after opening in Cleveland. If there is a statement game, this will be it. He scored 22 points and grabbed nine rebounds in a little over 32 minutes the last time the Bucks won in Boston. Thon Maker, the other African on the Bucks roster, managed only four points and two rebounds in almost 13 minutes of action in the same game. Thon Maker is wiser, and will likely get more minutes this season. The same cannot be said of Semi Ojeleye. The rookie has averaged 21 minutes in the three games so far, posting 7.0 ppg and 2.3 rpg off the bench. He will get more minutes as the season progresses, but will likely have to make do with a cameo role in this game, especially if the opening night in Cleveland doesn’t turn out the way the Celtics hope it does.
Utah Jazz vs Denver Nuggets
The interest in this game will center around two things: the prospects of both Emmanuel Mudiay and Ekpe Udoh this season. Mudiay was hot for the Nuggets through the first one-and-a-half seasons of his NBA career, then everything petered out as team coach Michael Malone dropped him out of team rotation around February 2017. He started just one of the first four preseason games, and posted 10.5 ppg and 4.0 assists per game in 23 minutes. A good start, but will Malone continue with him? Udoh has been out of the NBA for two seasons. In those two years, he has won trophies, been named on All-Star teams and won MVP honors in Europe. His last recorded statistics in the NBA was 0.9 ppg and 0.8 rpg while averaging 3.9 minutes in 33 games at the Clippers. If he starts against the Nuggets, it will be his first in an NBA game since 2014. Can he cope? That question will not be relevant for Thabo Sefolosha, whose 42 starts for the Atlanta Hawks last season was the most since he started all 61 games he played for the Oklahoma City in 2013/14. Sefolosha’s stock in trade is hard-nosed defense, and he is expected to anchor a Jazz defence that will also have Rudy Gobert. This game may be the start of something special.
Sacramento Kings vs Houston Rockets (live on Kwesé Sports 1 on Wednesday, Oct 19 from 04:00 CAT)
Clint Capela laid down a marker last season when his scoring average jumped with the increased minutes Mike D’Antoni handed him. He started 24 more games than in the previous season (from 35 to 59) and his minutes went from 19.1 to a 23.9 average per night. But, the scoring zoomed from 7.0 to 12.6 ppg. Against the Sacramento Kings, however, Capela logged a 17.7 ppg average in four meetings, and actually recorded double-doubles in the two games DeMarcus Cousins was in the lineup opposite him. After the tough opening-day game in Oakland against the defending champion Warriors, will Capela and Luc Mbah a Moute run riot against the ‘weaker’ Kings? Or will Rockets open the season with a 2-0 lead on the back of contributions from the African duo?
Dallas Mavericks vs Atlanta Hawks
The debate on whether Tunisian center Salah Mejri deserves a new contract at Dallas started as soon as the 2016/17 season closed, with him entering the final season of a three-year, $2.4-million deal. The fact that he wasn’t guaranteed for the 2017/18 season, and Mavericks did not waive him (they could have at the end of July, and he will earn about $1.8-million in this final year), meant that he did enough to justify that contract. But, the fact that they didn’t offer him an extension meant that Mark Cuban and Rick Carlisle are not fully convinced, either. Mejri averaged 3.2 ppg while playing 12.2 minutes each night in those two seasons; he started only 17 of the 107 games he played. The Tunisian was exciting on some nights; will he stake a claim to more minutes with a huge performance on this day?
There will be no such questions about Dennis Schroder. The 24-year-old guard signed a two-year, $3.04-million contract after he was drafted by Atlanta in 2013. A year later, the Hawks exercised a $1.76-million option, and took the $2.7-million option 12 months down the line. Then in October 2016, they locked him down to a new four-year deal worth a reported $70-million, with $62-million guaranteed. Such has been his impact. The Gambian-German plays with a chip on his shoulder, and it will be no surprise if his next targets are an All-Star appearance, and making an All-NBA Team. The trip to Dallas will be the place to start … literally.
By Akinbode Oguntuyi
@booday10 on Twitter
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