The soon-to-tip-off 2017/18 NBA season holds so much promise for players of African descent. The rise of Giannis Antetokounmpo, the move of Luc Mbah a Moute to the Houston Rockets, the possibility of Joel Embiid playing a full season in a revamped Philadelphia 76ers team, and a refreshed Serge Ibaka in the frontcourt of an emotionally settled Toronto Raptors all mean that we may see more players from the continent playing in the latter stages of the NBA postseason.
Last season, only Golden State Warriors veteran Nigerian-American Andre Iguodala featured as the sole representative of the continent in the Conference Finals and Finals. Clint Capela and Chinanu Onuaku (Houston Rockets), Serge Ibaka and Pascal Siakam (Toronto Raptors) and Daniel Ochefu (Washington Wizards) were the players with continent ties who progressed as far as the conference semifinals. Sadly, their journey ended there. How far can these stars go this season? Who are the most likely to make the most progress?
That answer may lie in Houston, where the pair of Luc Mbah a Moute and Clint Capela will be major players with the Rockets. And with Onuaku likely to play a bigger role with the Rockets, Houston may be the team that will keep African interests alive deepest into the playoffs. The arrival of Chris Paul means that the Rockets now have two solid All-Stars on their roster as Paul joins James Harden, and while it may take some time to settle who the main ball-handler will be, the Rockets are definitely better than last season. What this will translate to, is probably a deeper playoff run. Houston were stopped in six games by San Antonio last season; they may just have enough to get past that hurdle this term.
The other team likely to have the double attraction of an African player and a deep playoff run, is the Boston Celtics. The Celtics were undone in the Eastern Conference Finals last season by the Cleveland Cavaliers, and while the Cavs are still trying to quell raging fires in their ranks the Celtics have gotten better with the addition of All-Star forward Gordon Hayward. That also happens to be the team that drafted Jesusemilore ‘Semi’ Ojeleye, who has Nigerian roots. Boston held the No 1 seed going into the playoffs last season, but were undone in the Conference Finals by Cleveland; the addition of Hayward gives the Celtics another solid scorer, and a different dimension of taking on defences.
Ojeleye wasn’t one of the stars of the Summer League, mostly because Boston played him in multiple positions. But comparisons to Draymond Green mean that a whole lot is expected of him and, who knows, should injuries or the stress of a long season catch up with Boston, Ojeleye could be a surprise package if the chance of first-team ball presents itself.
Joel Embiid will be sure to give basketball fans all-season-long entertainment, whether his team plays deep into the playoffs or not. However, the surgery and the long rest, plus the promise of the Sixers front office that he will not be on play rotation next season, will mean the superbly talented Cameroonian will be available for the Sixers. Add the arrival of No 1 pick Markelle Fultz, the availability of Ben Simmons and the experience of JJ Redick, Amir Johnson and Thiago Splitter and what you have is a team that will likely do Philly proud. But how far can they go? Maybe a push into the postseason; if that happens, it will be far better than last season. And that is a good place to be, especially from the African perspective.
The Toronto Raptors have played in consecutive conference semifinals, and have played a Conference Final in the past two seasons. That is after consecutive first-round exits. Bismack Biyombo played his part in the march to the Conference Finals in 2016, while Serge Ibaka, and to some extent Pascal Siakam, were major factors in the push into the conference semis last season. Ibaka and Siakam will be key actors again this season. The Raptors will likely get into the postseason, but one of their foes in the East will be the Milwaukee Bucks, where Giannis Antetokounmpo will be attempting a run of his own.
The Greek-Nigerian was the League-wide revelation last season. His voice became louder as his game grew along with his influence, both on and off the court. The Bucks fell to the Raptors in the first round of the playoffs last season, after securing just 42 wins in the regular season. The Bucks should have more wins this term, as Antetokounmpo’s influence on the game extends. And then, maybe a deeper playoff run will follow.
It’s a long season and there could be a couple of surprises from teams who might not be seen as playoff-place chasers yet. For now, we will pin our hopes to the African stars above to produce an NBA champion among them.
By Akinbode Oguntuyi
@booday10 on Twitter