Kenya’s quest for an NBA player and the rise of basketball in Africa

African hoops players have proved a dominant force in the National Basketball Association (NBA), North America’s top league since Nigerian Hakeem Olajuwon became a superstar in the 1980s and ‘90s.

Nicknamed “The Dream” for his effortless slam-dunking ability, Olajuwon appeared in 12 All-Star contests and won back-to-back championships with the Houston Rockets during his 18 year NBA career.  The soaring 7-foot Nigerian was enshrined in the league’s Hall of Fame in 2008.

Olajuwon could have never imagined the precedent he was setting for future African basketball players early in his career.

Soon, players such as Dikembe Mutumbo from DRC and Manute Bol from Sudan were competing in the NBA, paving the way for the league’s current crop of African-connected players, a cohort that includes superstars Giannis Antetokounmpo (Nigeria) of the Toronto Raptors and Joel Embiid (Cameroon) of the Philadelphia 76ers.

Kenya seeks NBA representation 

Somewhat surprisingly, Kenya has watched from the sidelines as other African nations usher their own into the NBA. Africa’s seventh-most populous country has yet to see a native or first-generation foreign-born player join an NBA team for regular-season competition.

That’s not to say a Kenyan will never appear in the NBA. The eventuality draws closer as teams recruit a growing number of players with ties to the country.

Since 2009, 14 players from Nairobi have been eligible for the NBA Draft, the annual selection process in which each of the league’s teams claims new players. Draft eligibility is far from a golden ticket into North America’s pro ranks. The NBA admits just 60 players a year into the league through the draft.

Still, the rate at which Kenyans are becoming draft-eligible is increasing, heightening the chances that a player will find a spot with an NBA team. The occasional Kenyan prospect surfaced in draft talks throughout much of the 2010s. Since 2018, however, four players from Nairobi alone were eligible for drafting.

Nigeria (21 players) and Senegal (12 players) lead Africa with the most players to appear in the NBA.

Makur Maker offers a promising candidate 

Kenya’s best option so far to land a player in the NBA comes in the form of Makur Maker, a high-profile amateur player currently competing in the US. Maker, who hails from Nairobi, relocated to the US from Perth, Australia, in 2015 to play prep basketball in Los Angeles.

With playing stints in California, Ontario, Canada, and Arizona, Maker has become one of North America’s elite amateur stars over the past four seasons.

Maker is currently committed to play US college-level basketball at Howard University. Some NBA analysts predict he will leave the Howard program after a season or two in favor of the draft.

Maker will proudly continue a family tradition if he joins an NBA team. He is the cousin of Sudanese-Australian players Thon Maker of the Detroit Pistons and Matur Maker of the NBA G League development tier.

The NBA pushes to increase basketball awareness, player recruitment 

Basketball at all levels is rising throughout Africa due to the NBA’s multi-year commitment to the continent. Among the league’s investments are the new Basketball Africa League (BAL), training academies, exhibition games, and a YouTube channel dedicated to sub-Saharan Africa.

The NBA hopes its on-going Africa campaign will attract new fans and talent to basketball. In North America, basketball is well established as one of the most popular sports. Millions of fans in the US and Canada view games on TV, purchase team merchandise, or bet on NBA at online sportsbooks during the season.

The BAL, which debuted in 2020 as Africa’s new top professional league, is a joint partnership between the NBA and the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) with sponsorship from Nike. The league boasts 12 squads from as many African countries competing in the host cities of Cairo, Dakar, Lagos, Luanda, Rabat, Monastir, and Tunis. Kigali will host the league’s first championship tournament.


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