Chris Ebersole: 'There's a tremendous amount of potential in Africa'

Chris Ebersole: 'There's a tremendous amount of potential in Africa'

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Chris Ebersole: 'There's a tremendous amount of potential in Africa'

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NBA associate VP of international basketball operations Chris Ebersole oversees the NBA’s elite development programming globally, including Basketball Without Borders and NBA Academy.

He recently spoke with HoopsHype about how those NBA programs interact with each other to maximize the players’ talent, the new trends in basketball development, some youngsters like Derrick Michael Xzavierro who could become big-time players in the near future, and more.

How come the NBA had less than 10 international players in the 80s and now not only has more than 100, even many of them are superstars?

Giannis Antetokounmpo

(Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Chris Ebersole: The international impact in the NBA at this point is really undeniable. At the start of this year, having over 120 international players from 40 different countries it’s actually a pretty stunning number and just in terms of the quantity and their share of the league that is international. But also as you mentioned the quality, having four All-Star starters and six total All-Stars being international this season. You could argue that the three top MVP candidates at this point in the season with Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo are all international players. So it’s not only the quantity, but it’s also the quality and the impact that these guys have. To have those players, with Giannis winning a championship last year, winning the Finals MVP, and the likes of Luka Doncic in that conversation and Rudy Gobert and some of these other guys… They’re not only amazing players, but they’re tremendous ambassadors for the NBA and for the game of basketball overseas. And the exciting part is that they’re obviously impacting the game, currently.  The impact that they and the other 120-plus international players are going to have on even the next generation, it’s something really exciting, because it only grows when you have the level of inspiration and motivation, that comes from young people being able to look up to players who are from the region or the country that they’re from.

This is something that we as a league see right in front of us. And we understand that this isn’t something we can necessarily just take for granted, we also have to do our own work and do our part, to be proactive in creating an environment for that to happen. That’s something that we try to do at every level with our youth basketball programs and everything we do internationally.

Can you explain the various types of programs you have currently?

CE: Through a lot of research and through experience over the last few decades, we realized that investing in the growth and the development of the game of basketball requires effort and investment at every level of the game. The way we look at it is really a pyramid. At the base of that pyramid, you have those grassroots programs like Junior NBA, like NBA basketball schools, where you’re reaching tens f millions of kids all over the world and just getting them to fall in love with the sport, every aspect of it. That’s really the baseline and without that youth participation, the rest of the pyramid wouldn’t be possible. And as you move up the pyramid we also have our elite basketball programs: our Basketball Without Borders camps, and our NBA Academy programs. Those are really critical to take the sort of elite talent that comes from that grassroots pool and help first identify those players and then help, educate and develop them, give them exposure and allow NBA teams to see them so someday a handful of them will become the next generation of NBA stars and inspire, in turn, the generation beneath them.

Seeing the overall sort of impact of that pyramid strategy on the game just in terms of the enthusiasm of young people around the game of basketball. For example, a young kid from the Bahamas can look up to DeAndre Ayton and see his impact, or a young Israeli player can watch Deni Avdija and see his impact. Those impacts are really immeasurable but we know that the entire strategy comes together to create an environment where the game can really grow and develop overseas.

The Basketball Without Borders program has been the trademark for the League in terms of development, right?

CE: Typically the way our Basketball Without Borders camps is structured is that we would have four camps that are continental-based camps during the summer. So obviously Basketball Without Borders Africa, Basketball Without Borders Europe, we have an Asia camp and then an American camp as well. And then in normal times, we’ve also had a Basketball Without Borders Global camp which started in 2015 at the All-Star Weekend, but unfortunately with the pandemic and travel restrictions and things like that, we haven’t been able to do a Basketball Without Borders camp since the beginning of 2020 in Chicago. That was the last time we were able to host the Basketball Without Borders camp but we are hopeful that starting back up this summer here in 2022 we’ll be able to get back to doing the Basketball Without Borders regional camps and then next All-Star Weekend in Salt Lake City be able to do another basketball Without Borders Global camp. That camp at the All-Star for us is really one of the tentpole events and programs that we have that brings together top 40-plus boys players from all over the world, Top 20-25 girls from all over the world… It’s an opportunity for NBA teams, WNBA teams to see these players. And so it has become sort of a must-see scout event for all NBA teams and WNBA teams because it’s such a concentration of great talent.

Tell us a bit more about what the NBA Academy brings to the table.

CE: The basketball Without Borders camp goes back to 2001, so it’s a program that has an extensive and very successful track record now with nearly 100 alumni who have gone on from that camp and made it to the NBA or WNBA. Many big names like Joel Embiid, Pascal Siakam, Ayton, Jamal Murray, Rui Hachimura… the list goes on and on coming from that camp. The NBA Academies essentially build off the foundation that the Basketball Without Borders camps really started in terms of having an Elite Camp in Basketball Without Borders for the top young players from all over the world and from these various continents, to now take a program like that and extend it so that it’s not just four or five or six days together with NBA players and coaches imparting their wisdom and imparting their knowledge on these elite players coming up behind them.

Now we were able to take that bottle it up and extend it over the course of an entire year. And so the NBA Academy is our sort of attempt to do that with a year-round residential, educational program for these top young players, and I think a big part of it for us and the reason it was launched was because we noticed through the Basketball Without Borders program that there were players who had a lot of talent but maybe didn’t have necessarily all the infrastructure around them to take the next step and make it to the next level in their home market. A goal of it is to make that pyramid comprehensive so there are no gaps in that program, whether it’s the level of the facility that the player is training or the level of coaching. Our goal with the academy is to raise that standard to a world-class level across all of those components: facilities, coaching, education, life skills, strength and conditioning, nutrition… to really provide a holistic development experience for any player who comes through that program.

We’re starting to see sort of the initial results and successes now just about five years into the program, with now over 60 players who have made it to division one college basketball, and then, of course, some of the professional successes with Josh Giddey one of the top rookies in the NBA this year, Dyson Daniels playing with the G League Ignite… It’s still early days for the NBA Academy, just having launched in 2016, 2017 for some of them, but we’re already starting to see you know, those initial results and we’re very excited and hopeful that those results will only continue to grow in the future.

Is Africa the continent experiencing the biggest growth in terms of talent?

CE: Absolutely. Europe obviously will continue to be a major power in terms of producing talent on the basketball court, there’s no question about that. Historically it has been one of the major contributors to be NBA in terms of international talent along with Canada, Australia and a few other countries. But there’s a tremendous amount of potential in Africa. It’s a massive continent, with over 50 countries, which many people may not realize. There are just so many different opportunities when you look at Africa and how big it is, how young the population is, how much enthusiasm there is for the game of basketball. You had this first generation with Hakeem Olajuwon and Dikembe Mutombo that many of our current players grew up watching, and now with this next wave with Embiid from Cameroon, and Siakam from Cameroon as well. And you know, even though Giannis is Greek, I know he also identifies with his Nigerian roots as well and there’s obviously a lot of excitement there, too. So there’s a tremendous amount of potential.

One of our academies is based in Senegal and brings together players from all over the continent. We’re already seeing so many young talented players come through that program. We have our entire youth pyramid from junior NBA all the way up through academies in Africa. The other part that’s really exciting is the Basketball Africa League. And having a professional league as that aspirational quality for a young player growing up there to see a landing spot for them on the continent. That’s something that’s just so exciting to us because it really brings together that entire pyramid at the very top to have that pro league there.

Which countries have become relevant in the past five years?

CE: It’s really hard to narrow it to certain countries because there’s obviously the countries that have sort of a history and tradition like Australia, for example, where we now have a lineage of young guards with Giddey in Oklahoma City, but also Daniels in the G League Ignite and a young player named Tyrese Proctor, who’s basically a senior in our program in Australia and now who’s has the opportunity whether he goes pro or whether he goes to college at a very high level following the footsteps of those players. At the same time, we have for example a young player, we call him DMX; his name is Derrick Michael Xzavierro from Indonesia, and he’s excelling with our NBA Global Academy in Australia, and he’s going to be a big-time player. Indonesia is not a market known for basketball talent at this point but in the future, there could be a ton of potential there, maybe young players looking up to DMX.

Another example would be Hyunjung Lee, currently a junior at Davidson. Last season was the first player I think in Davidson history and only the 11th player all-time in college individual in college basketball history to put up a 50-40-90 season, something even Stephen Curry didn’t do at Davidson. He’s from South Korea, he came through our NBA Global Academy, he was identified at one of our Asia Pacific team camps in Asia, which is a sort of a related camp to our Basketball Without Borders camp. He’s a great example of a player who has come through our system starting with the camps, then the academies, now in the college basketball system, and hopefully he has a good chance to make it to the highest levels and make it to the NBA someday. It’s exciting to see the growth in these non-traditional markets.

What are the trends in basketball development around the globe impacting the next generation?

CE: I think positionless basketball is really beneficial for young players. In the past players might get pigeonholed into certain roles based on their size, or based on their body type. Now that’s becoming less and less the case where players were able to develop their entire skill sets, which allow for many of these really multi-skilled, larger players wings, or big guards like Luka. The other interesting thing that we’ve seen is sort of this convergence where basketball is no longer developing in silos geographically. Now there’s a convergence with access, whether it’s access to NBA games on television, or clips on mobile phones and social media, even access to coaching… One part of our strategy on the youth development side is developing coaches around the world, from coaching clinics. The skill level based on that ability to access the game, whether it’s watching the game, whether it’s learning the game from highly skilled coaches, there’s no longer as much of maybe a need to play catch up.

There’s been sort of this democratization a little bit of the game. No matter where you’re from, for the most part, you’re able to see NBA highlights on your phone or see NBA games on League Pass, learn from a coach who’s gotten great coaching development… In the past you sort of associated different player types or profiles with certain geographies. You still have the classic European skilled big men but actually, you see it in the US, big men who are multi-skilled and can step outside and shoot, pass the ball… All based on watching the generation of European players who shoot the ball like Dirk Nowitzki. In the US you had the big, strong physical post player like Shaquille O’Neal, and now the most dominant post player in the NBA now is Embiid. So it’s interesting to see this convergence and the overlap now, where the player sort of prototype isn’t as much based on geography anymore, because there’s so much access, and the development has gotten so good around the world.

Can you tell us one story that you are really proud of being part of while working in these programs?

Josh Giddey dribbles past Scottie Barnes

Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

CE: Oh, man, there are so many to highlight… Right now it would be Josh Giddey. He’s a player who some would label him as a late bloomer. He grew several inches sort of later in his sort of young career. He was a player who just no matter what was going on around him, other players who were maybe a higher profile or more hyped, there was a time where he actually didn’t make his State basketball team in Australia, only a few years ago. It’s pretty mind-blowing to think about that, where he didn’t make the Victoria State basketball team in Australia, and only a few years later, after really working on his game, growing a few inches, honing his skills at our academy for about a year and a half in Australia, going on to the NBL, competing at a really high level in a strong overseas league, and then ultimately being the sixth overall pick in the draft and now the best rookie of the Western Conference this year so far and one of the top rookies in the whole league this year, it’s just really exciting and emblematic to us.

Josh is at this point a superstar and has a tremendous following in Australia and around the world. Our hope is that the experience that he got playing and training at our NBA global Academy, being able to travel the world… At some point, he traveled to Spain and played in at the L’Hospitalet tournament and won the MVP trophy and the championship there. Those experiences that he got through the NBA Academy program, hopefully, contributed to his ability to now make a smooth transition and have a major impact in the NBA.

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