Afrobasket 2017 jointly hosted by Senegal (Dakar) and Tunisia (Tunis) kicks offs on September 6th running through September 16th. Going into the tournament as the highest ranked African team in FIBA standings (#16) and the defending champions, Nigeria’s D Tigers are highly favored to put up a strong defense of the title they secured for the first time in their history in Afrobasket 2015.
Nigeria’s D Tigers are drawn alongside DRC, Ivory Coast and Mali in Group A with preliminary round games to be played in Tunis. Dakar based Group B features perennial African powerhouse Angola alongside Central African Republic, Morocco and Uganda. The Angola team is expected to feature two highly rated youngsters – Silvio De Sousa and Bruno Fernandes. US college basketball coaches regard them as top recruiting prospects for the 2018 season. Tunis based Group C features host team Tunisia, Guinea, Rwanda and Cameroon. While Dakar based Group D fields host team Senegal, Egypt, Mozambique and South Africa. Going by current FIBA rankings, the top teams to watch out for are Tunisia, Angola, Senegal and Ivory Coast but the other teams are just as formidable if they can establish a good chemistry put up a good run.
D Tigers 2016 roster featured Alade Aminu, Al Farouq Aminu, Ike Diogu, Chamberlain Oguchi, Ben Uzoh, Andy Ogide, Josh Akongon, Michael Gbinije, Shane Lawal, Ekene Ibekwe, Ebi Ere and Michael Umeh. They played a very attractive high octane offense powered by Al Farouq Aminu’s slash and drive to the basket helped by dependable outside shooting by Michael Gbinijie and co.
We will need to broaden the pool of players available for invitation to camp and selection to final roster. The Nigerian Basketball Federation (NBBF) under the able leadership of Mr. Tijani Umar and co have done an excellent job forging together a formidable team able to win the Afrobasket title for the first time. They have succeeded in cultivating and developing the highly influential partnership with Toronto Raptors GM Masai Ujiri. The appointment of Coach Will Voigt further cements the development of a national team expected to remain competitive for the near term. However, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to improve the breadth and depth of available players in key positions such as center, power forward, shooting guard and point guard.
News of the ongoing leadership crisis in NBBF is a stark reminder of the issues that continue to bedevil sports in Nigeria – government interference and factional in-fighting. At the very least we risk reversing the hard won gains risk due to the in-fighting or doom our chances of defending the title at worst. I have registered my admiration for the work the Tijani Umar led NBBF has achieved for Nigerian basketball and I remain convinced they are best positioned to execute the long term vision for development of Nigerian basketball.
With only a few weeks to tournament kick off, it is unlikely that the federation will be able to secure the services of the vast array of talent eligible for selection to the Nigerian team for Afrobasket 2017. We should consider an expanded list of players whose presence and contribution to D Tigers can ultimately take Nigeria to the next level. A level where they are considered not just the undisputed best team in Africa but a solid contender for FIBA top ten ranking on a regular basis.
Every passing year of US NCAA Basketball season together with the NBA draft reveals a pool of Nigerian, US, Canadian and UK born players that are eligible to be considered for call up to the D Tigers selection camp. The 2017 season is no exception presenting recent NBA draftees like Wesley Iwundu, Seyi Ojeleye and Ike Anigbogu as worthy of consideration for selection. This trio represents the most likely set of players that will consider playing for Nigeria among recent draftees. US born Bam Adebayo and UK born OG Anunoby are expected to weigh their chances of representing USA and UK respectively and unlikely to honor a Nigeria call up for now.
As mouthwatering as the prospect of Victor Oladipo gracing the green jersey of D Tigers is, it is unlikely we’ll see him honor a Nigeria call up anytime soon as his stock continues rise in the NBA. His rising profile in the NBA positions him as a strong candidate for selection to US Dream Team.
I would like to see ex Minnesota Gopher Trevor Mbakwe invited to bolster our Power Forward position and give us a credible low post presence in games in which we suffer a shooting slump. Ex University of Pittsburgh forward Talib Zanna and current University of Georgia standout Derek Ogbeide should be invited to the small forward position as well. The Center position remains D Tigers biggest weakness and last season’s NCAA finalist Daniel Ochefu alongside his fellow center ex University of Miami star Tonye Jekri should be invited to provide badly needed back up to Ike Diogu. There were games in which we played Ike for too many minutes thus sapping his energy in the critical final minutes on account of our lack of depth in the center position. Centers Solomon Alabi and Festus Ezeli should be in scope for consideration as well but are yet to feature for the D Tigers despite being invited or eligible.
The list of potential players that could transform the D Tigers into world contenders would be incomplete without the mention of Rasheed Sulaimon. The Houston born shooting guard imbued with a winner’s mentality would be a welcome to the Nigerian team. Rasheed could help the D Tigers as a dependable ball handler with a proven ability to drive, break down defenses and create shots for his team mates. NBBF and coach Voigt should make securing Rasheed Sulaimon their top priority!