Five African NBA players that need a breakout season

The NBA gets a minimum of 60 new young players every season and that puts pressure on the talent that is already on rosters to perform, especially those that are on second and third units.

Much like in any league, continual performance is essential for an NBA player to keep their spot on a team and sometimes, depending on a team’s needs, that might not even guarantee them their place – Case in point: The Toronto Raptors’ DeMar DeRozan trade to the San Antonio Spurs. 

With that as a backdrop, there are a couple of African players that might need to have breakout seasons in the current NBA campaign or might find themselves on the trading block or risk getting waived.

BWB Africa alumn and former Louisville Cardinal Gorgui Dieng of the Minnesota Timberwolves need to put up better numbers this season. From his sophomore season to the (2016-17), where averaged about 30 minutes per game, he was putting up about 10 points per game, grabbing about seven rebounds and dishing about 1.9 assists. Not too bad for a second unit player.

However, the last two seasons have seen the 29-year-old Senegalese centre start only two games and his minutes per game almost halved and his points drop to 6.2, lower than his career average of eight, his rebounds have dropped to 4.4 per game lower than his career average of 6.3. His other statistical averages have also gone in the same direction.

This season has seen Dieng play in three of the Timberwolves’ first five games of the season, and averaged 10 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 1.3 blocks per game, in 15.7 minutes per game. He put up a notable performance in his team’s 131-109 victory over the Washington Wizards on Saturday night where he started in place of the suspended Karl-Anthony Towns and scored 18 points, got eight rebounds, and three blocks.

It is clear that he is capable of performing when called upon because he followed this up with a 10-point performance against the Milwaukee Bucks on Monday night. Minnesota head coach Ryan Saunders needs to find a way to increase his minutes on the floor, even if he is playing backup to one of the promising centres in the league if he is to get better utility from the big man from Kebemer.

Malian forward Cheick Diallo was drafted in 2016 via the Los Angeles Clippers and was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans on draft night, and played under the tutelage of head coach Alvin Gentry and then squad superstar Anthony Davis, who is now with the Los Angeles Lakers. 

He came into the league with great promise after averaging 10.2 points, 9.4 rebounds and 2.2 blocks in five Summer League games. In his three-year tenure at the Pelicans, during which he was seconded to the G-League a couple of times, he only started one game and averaged 5.5 points and 4.6 rebounds. However, he was only seeing about 12.6 minutes on the hardwood per session.

Being on the same team as Davis surely did not help him get many minutes off the bench, and maybe he wasn’t utilised to his full potential. Hopefully, his new chapter with the Phoenix Suns, which is also a relatively small market may see him get more time on the floor.

So far, he has played three of the Sun’s five games, but only averaging two minutes per game and scoring a point for every minute he has spent on the floor. With teammates like Deandre Ayton, Aaron Baynes and Frank Kaminsky, he really needs to prove himself to head coach Monty Williams in order for him to increase his minutes and production for the squad. 

Nigerian-American guard Josh Okogie of the Timberwolves has the youth and athleticism to be a prolific backcourt player, he just needs to step his game up. He is only in his sophomore season, but with an average of 23.6 minutes per game, he needs to up his 7.7 points, 3.1 rebounds, and 1.3 assists per game.

He already has a presence on the floor but has to refine his game more to make himself more impactful because Minnesota has a number of guard options like Jeff Teague and Shabazz Napier, so he needs to find a way to make himself the potential first option soon.

The fact that the team’s guard options are not exactly at the level of Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, Chris Paul, Luka Doncic or Trae Young, he has the chance to get more playtime and elevate his game. 

Rwandese-French guard Frank Ntilikina came into the NBA after playing two years of professional basketball in France. While at the New York Knicks, he proved his defensive prowess early but has not really been a notable presence offensively which is required for a backcourt player. 

Granted, New York, particularly at the Knicks, has not been in the best state but with the rebuild taking place there, he needs to improve the look of his stat sheet and he can only do that by becoming more of a facilitator and scorer.

As a backup point guard, he has been getting 21.6 minutes of play per game, but only managing an average of 5.9 points, 2.2 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game. So far this season, he has appeared in all seven of the Knicks’ games and played about 20.9 minutes per session but only averaged 4.3 points, 1.3 rebounds and 2.1 assists. With the likes of Elfrid Payton and Dennis Smith Jr on the roster, Ntilikina really needs a standout 2019-20 season. 

Congolese guard Emmanuel Mudiay proved himself in the Chinese league before coming to the NBA in 2015. He is now in his fourth season and at his third team, and looks poised to have the notable season he needs.

While at the Denver Nuggets (2015 – 2017) he showed great promise and in his best season was putting up 12.8 points, 3.4 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game, but dropped off quite a bit before he joined the Knicks in 2017. This can also be attributed to the fact that he was also second fiddle to Garry Harris and Jamal Murray.

At the Knicks, his scoring numbers did improve to a 14.8 average per game, but now he is at the Utah Jazz alongside 12-year veteran guard Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell. This might bring the best out of him, especially with the guidance from the vet and the energy from the explosive sophomore.  

He has played in all of the Jazz’s six games this season and is putting up nine points, 2.3 rebounds and 3.5 assists in 18.3 minutes per game average.

It goes without saying that there are more African players in the NBA that need better seasons, but these five need to turn up their level of performance in order get back to their previous selves or even get better than they have been in the past.

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