As the Basketball Africa League continues its third season, some players told ESPN that they chose to play in the BAL rather than stick with their teams in more established leagues, so is Africa becoming a preferred destination for younger players?
While it's debatable whether the BAL can claim to be one of the best leagues in the world, given it only launched in 2021, it is succeeding in at least luring some top talent away from other leagues with global prestige -- a recent example being British-Nigerian Michael Ochereobia.
AS Douanes forward Ochereobia joined the Senegalese side, hosts of the ongoing Sahara Conference, from the UK's Cheshire Phoenix even though he was on the books of a settled side.
The British Basketball League side released a statement saying they were "disappointed" to be losing a player who helped them win last season's BBL Trophy.
The fact that a BAL side, especially one back in the league after not qualifying in 2022, could convince a player to leave Europe speaks highly of its growth, and Ochereobia was complimentary of his new team and league.
"From most players that I've spoken to, it's somewhere they want to play - somewhere they want to go to. I'm happy to be here; happy to be in Africa and to play in this wonderful league," Ochereobia told ESPN.
"A lot of these guys are very athletic, can shoot the ball really well and have a motor on them, so can get up and down the floor really well. It's a good league; it's a good experience. From what I've seen anyway, it looks like it will be a very physical or fast-paced league."
On his motives for leaving the BBL for the BAL, he said: "I heard about the BAL and the great opportunities and what they're trying to do in that regard. I've never been to Africa as well, so this was my first time, so that was a big motivation for me to come.
"I'm of African descent. My parents are Nigerian and I was born in England, so that was a big motivation there. Just the opportunity to play in the BAL and play in the Motherland was an opportunity that I couldn't miss."
It would be naive to think that players, especially younger ones, aren't motivated by the BAL's connection to the NBA, which co-organises the tournament with global basketball governing body FIBA.
Even in 2021, when the league was held in a COVID-19 bubble in Kigali, Rwanda over two weeks, there were many former D1 college players, and former NBA draftees and G League veterans looking to re-enter the US top flight.
This year too, one of the most newsworthy additions to the tournament was Zaire Wade, son of NBA legend Dwyane Wade, who joined the Cape Town Tigers after recovering from a lengthy injury picked up in the G League. At 21 years old, his goal is the league synonymous with his dad, telling ESPN that he's conscious of the 'NBA eyes' on the BAL.
In 2022, Jared Harrington (who eventually played for Cobra Sport in the tournament itself) told ESPN he had turned down a move to Portugal in order to join the Cape Town Tigers: "I was committed to a team in Portugal.
"I just realised that the opportunity was greater because this is actually a league associated with the NBA and that's my eventual goal -- to be there in a year or two."
The fact that the BAL has been able to lure players away from some respected European leagues is a promising sign, but it is not yet clear whether this can happen on a regular basis.
According to British-born Texas Longhorns alum Prince Ibeh, who was an impressive center for Rwanda's Patriots BBC at the 2021 BAL, players choosing the BAL over big leagues abroad will remain anomalies rather than the norm until the African season is extended.
"Around the time the BAL starts, many leagues are approaching their import signing deadlines. So many changes are occurring, so the BAL can be a good landing spot at those times, but no one expects or hopes to be free around this time," Ibeh told ESPN.
The Rwanda international, who was Ochereobia's teammate at the Plymouth Raiders in 2021, said that although some players have left competitive leagues for the BAL, they were in the minority and the current format prevented him and others from being able to play.
As it stands, the BAL is played in three legs, for 10 days each across three months. The Sahara Conference in Dakar is running from March 11-21, then the Nile Conference in Cairo is from April 26-6 May, and the playoffs/finals in Kigali from May 21-27.
As such, the disjointed nature has put more high-profile players out of contention, says Ibeh, who was most recently with the TaiwanBeer HeroBears: "The league could absolutely attract more players if they fixed the format. I haven't been able to return to the BAL specifically because of the format."
He added: "Most players have lives and families to care for, so they need consistency and stability for the season. The BAL in its current format does not offer that. It has the potential to create structure for African basketball as a whole in the way the EuroLeague and EuroCup do for Europe.
"For starters, all participating teams need to have local leagues that occur around the same time. I know some places lack infrastructure compared to others, but that has to be the goal in order to propel the competition as quickly as possible.
"As of now, most guys are not going to pass up on 7-10 months of salary in exchange for two weeks of competition.
"I do think the BAL has the potential to attract top import players. The main barriers against that right now are format and salaries. Some teams can pay much more than others."
Nevertheless, there are players with experience playing at a high level elsewhere who continue to choose the BAL year on year.
One example is Chris Crawford, the 2013 Conference USA Sixth Man of the Year with the University of Memphis. Crawford had an NBA Summer League stint with the Houston Rockets and preseason spells with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Memphis Grizzlies. He also represented the Cavs and Minnesota Timberwolves' G-League affiliates. In between, he had a stint in the LNB Pro A with Rouen.
After being in Lebanon from 2017-2019, Crawford entered the BAL ecosystem and has since been present every year - in 2021 with Tunisia's US Monastir, in 2022 with Guinea's SLAC and now as Ochereobia's teammate at AS Douanes.
"I keep coming back because I haven't won it yet. I liked our chances when they called me to come back," Crawford said in a press conference when explaining the pull of the BAL.
"I think the BAL is doing a great job - it's the exposure that it brings, the talent here - every time I come to a different team, I find new talent... It just makes me want to come back because they listen. They really want to learn and they really want to become better. They embrace you."
The BAL airs on ESPN's channels in Africa. Find the schedule and scores here.