Defensive domination and rebounding prowess are trademarks of the greatest basketball players from Africa. These are defining traits for these men, the greatest basketball players from Africa, in the NBA and in other overseas circuits.
Africa has produced a growing influx of standout basketball players on the global stage, including the U.S. college scene. African players have had various stages of success, and the ultimate goal, of course, is to reach the NBA.
Naturally, overall feats, historic impact, and notoriety are the primary characteristics of the greatest basketball players from Africa.
First of all, the Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid missed the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons due to injuries. But he has the potential to be an All-Star for years and years to come.
That would make him one of the certified greatest basketball players from Africa. The 7-foot (213 cm) Cameroonian native averaged 20.7 points, 10.7 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.6 blocks in his first nine games of the 2017-18 season. Furthermore, his delayed rookie campaign saw him named to the 2016-17 NBA All-Rookie first team.
After just a season at the University of Kansas, Philly snatched Embiid at No. 3 in the 2014 draft, making him at the time the latest in a growing list of Africans selected. Embiid is a major part of the 76ers’ turnaround this season.
At the beginning of the 2017/2018 NBA season, Philly is off to its best start in years. Consequently, Embiid is playing a starring role.
Joaquim “Kikas” Gomes’s career included distinguished Angolan national team duty. Moreover, he’s arguably the greatest African basketball player to never appear in an NBA game. As a result, his consistency helped trigger the blue-collar heartbeat of the Angolan team.
The 6-foot-6 (198 cm) Gomes played at NCAA Division I Valparaiso (Indiana) University (2000-04). He competed at the 2004 Athens Olympics and in the 2006 FIBA World Championship in Japan. A determined rebounder and intense defense, he was a vital competitor on Angola’s 2005, 2007, 2009 and 2013 FIBA Africa Championship teams.
In addition, Gomes nabbed top rebounder honors in the 2009 AfroBasket tourney.
Gomes saw at center and power forward in a career that lasted until 2016, including stops in Germany and the Netherlands. He retired with his longtime Angolan club team, 1° de Agosto.
10. Hasheem Thabeet
The Memphis Grizzlies selected Hasheem Thabeet No. 2 overall in the 2009 NBA Draft. The 7-3 (221 cm) native of Tanzania never panned out as an NBA star. But one of the greatest basketball players from Africa did bring a lot of publicity to his homeland.
Defensive prowess in college (2009 Big East Conference Defensive Player of the Year honor) elevated his name recognition.
Thabeet helped the University of Connecticut reach the NCAA Final Four in 2009. In the 2008-09 college season, Thabeet was one of three UConn players – Jerome Dyson and A.J. Price were the others — to top the 1,000-point plateau en route to becoming a consensus second-team All-American.
Most of all, he remains one of 21 NCAA Division I players with 400 or more career blocks. At No. 20 on the list, he swatted 417 shots in a UConn uniform. Shaquille O’Neal of Louisiana State blocked 412, putting him at No. 21 on the all-time list. (Blocks became an official college basketball stat for the 1985-86 season.)
In 2011, the Grizzlies traded Thabeet to the Houston Rockets for Shane Battier and Ish Smith. A year later, the Rockets sent him to the Portland Trail Blazers in a trade that involved Marcus Camby.
Hasheem Thabeet averaged 2.2 points, 2.7 rebounds and 0.8 blocks in the NBA. In February 2017, he participated in the 10-team Dubai Invitationals for Mighty Sports, a team from the Philippines. Thabeet spoke to the Philippine Star before the tournament.
“I go hard whenever I’m playing in a game or at practice, that’s how I am,” Thabeet told the newspaper. “It’s always an adrenaline rush for me. … If there’s somebody who’s outworking me, I don’t like it because that means I’m being lazy.”
Thabeet’s NBA journey lasted 224 games (20 starts) with the Grizzlies, Rockets, Trail Blazers and Oklahoma City Thunder. In the summer of 2017, he joined the Yokohama B-Corsairs of Japan’s B. League, extending his career in another corner of the globe.
9. Gorgui Dieng
The 28-year-old Gorgui Dieng became a household name when he played for Rick Pitino at the University of Louisville. The Cardinals captured the NCAA title in Dieng’s junior season. Consequently, he was named the 2013 Big East Defensive Player of the Year.
Furthermore, Dieng’s accomplishments at Louisville were inspiring performances for his Senegalese compatriots and the African sporting diaspora.
Dieng embraced the pressure of the big-time college spotlight. In a Sweet 16 triumph over Michigan State in March 2012, he blocked seven shots. A signature performance for one of Africa’s transcendent stars. He left Louisville as the Cardinals’ second all-time leading shot-blocker (267, behind only Pervis Ellison).
What has clearly made the 6-11 (211 cm) Gorgui Dieng one of Africa’s elite basketball players is his ability to amass stats quickly. Example: 22 points and 21 rebounds as a Minnesota Timberwolves rookie in March 2014.
Coming off the bench for the T-Wolves in a November 2017 game, Dieng provided a bundle of energy and numbers: 15 points, including 9-for-10 at the line, and 11 rebounds in 19 minutes.
Gorgui Dieng, whose first name means “The Old One,” and who has three brothers in his large extended family, participated in the Basketball Without Borders camp in 2009 in South Africa, a showcase event for 60 of Africa’s rising basketball stars. The result? He was MVP of the camp.
As one of the greatest basketball players from Africa, Dieng became an integral part of a second family, host parents Scott and Lesley Thomas’s. He lived with them and their younger sons, Clayton and Luke while attending Huntington Prep School in Virginia.
8. DeSagana Diop
The 7-footer (213 cm), who hails from Senegal, represents the best of West Africa’s players. He gained notoriety at powerhouse Oak Hill (Virginia) Academy as a schoolboy senior when the nation’s top-ranked team went 33-0. Diop’s contributions: 14.6 points, 13.2 rebounds and 8.1 blocks.
DeSagana Diop made the jump from Oak Hill Academy to the NBA. The Cavaliers picked him No. 8 overall in the 2001 draft. He made limited starting appearances (93) during his NBA career. It was a career that included stints with the Cavs, Dallas Mavericks, New Jersey Nets, and Charlotte Bobcats.
Certainly, Diop, one of the greatest basketball players from Africa, was valued for his defensive energy and hustle. He reportedly played the fourth quarter and OT in Game 7 of the 2006 Western Conference semifinals with a broken nose. The big fellow helped the Mavs reach the NBA Finals in 2006. He was, however, a woeful free-throw shooter with a career percentage of 46.7.
As a result, his shooting woes gained further infamy when he shot an airball that fell well short of its target in 2012 and traveled around the Internet.
Off the court, education was a big part of his upbringing. Diop’s father was a high school principal and his mother was a teacher.
In August 2010, DeSagana Diop traveled to Senegal as part of the United Nations Foundation’s Nothing But Nets campaign, an effort to eradicate malaria. The group was there “to help distribute 20,000 long-lasting, insecticide-treated nets to families in great need,” a U.N. press release reported.
At the time, Diop said, “Growing up in Senegal, I have seen firsthand the deadly effects of malaria, especially on children. … We need to provide a bed net to everyone who needs one.”
DeSagana Diop retired in 2013. He coached in the NBA Development League, then became a coaching associate with the Utah Jazz in 2016.
7. Bismack Biyombo
First and foremost, the 6-9 (205 cm) inside player is noted for his rebounding and shot-blocking. Blessed with 229-cm wingspan, the native of Lubumbashi (Democratic Republic of Congo), had 18 boards and seven blocks in a December 2015 game for the Raptors. Fast forward to March 2016, and Bismack Biyombo, one of the greatest basketball players from Africa, supplied 16 points and 25 rebounds in an OT victory over the Pacers. Later that season, he had 26 boards in a win against the Cavs in the Eastern Conference finals.
Biyombo, the No. 7 pick (by the Sacramento Kings) in the 2009 NBA Draft, currently plays for the Orlando Magic (2017/2018 season). He joined the Magic as a free agent in July 2016, agreeing to a four-year, $72 million pact.
Entering the 2017-18 season, the 25-year-old’s career stats are 4.8 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks.
6. Luc Mbah a Moute
March Madness, aka tourney time, was the Cameroonian’s introduction to big-time public exposure. He earned Pac-10 Freshman of the Year accolades for the 2005-06 season, averaging 8.9 points and 8.1 rebounds.
The 6-8 (203 cm) forward has rapidly moved around the NBA. The Milwaukee Bucks selected him No. 2 overall in 2008, and he’s also played for the Kings, Minnesota Timberwolves, Philadelphia 76ers, and Los Angeles Clippers. He signed with the Houston Rockets during the 2017-18 offseason.
In 621 NBA games before the 2017-18 campaign, Luc Mbah a Moute, one of the greatest basketball players from Africa, started 438 times. He’s known for his defensive productivity; for the high-scoring Rockets that specialty will be a boost.
What’s more, he’s also, literally, an African prince. Bia Messe, a village in his homeland Cameroon, honored him with that special title.
5. Manute Bol
Manute Bol was considered the second-tallest player in NBA history, even though he was listed at 7-7. That’s the same height as Gheorghe Muresan. In contrast, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, Manute Bol was “only” 7-6 3/4.
One of the greatest basketball players from Africa, Manute Bol bounced around the NBA with the Washington Bullets (two stints), Golden State Warriors (two stints), 76ers (two stints) and Miami Heat. At the outset, he played for the Rhode Island Gulls of the USBL. The Bullets drafted Bol with the 31st pick in 1985.
Very skinny with an unusually long wingspan of 8 feet, 6 inches (259 cm), Manute Bol blocked shots with impressive success, including 7.1 a game at NCAA Division II University of Bridgeport in 1984-85.
As an NBA rookie, Bol blocked 397 shots, a record for first-year players. He once blocked 11 shots in one half and twice rejected eight shots in one quarter, tying league marks.
How dominant of a blocker was Bol? His career average in blocks per 48 minutes (8.6) obliterates No. 2 man Mark Eaton (5.8). Manute Bol had more blocks (2,086) than points (1,599) in the NBA. Nobody else did that.
Moreover, he became a cult hero of sorts around the league with his unusual form of shooting 3-pointers. Bol was a well-known financial supporter of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement. Furthermore, he raised funds for the charity to aid refugees in the decades-long Sudan civil war. The conflict tore the nation apart, eventually leading to the establishment of South Sudan.
Years before his passing, Leigh Montville’s intriguing biography, “Manute: The Center of Two Worlds,” further immortalized Bol.
Tragically, Manute Bol passed away at age 47 on June 19, 2010. Ten days after his death, a memorial service was held at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. (Stevens-Johnson syndrome and acute kidney failure were listed as causes of death.)
“Manute had a very great heart for his country and people,” Dr. Akec K.A. Khoc, Ambassador of Sudan to the United States, once said. “He did everything to support anybody in need of shoes, blankets, health service, food, and people who were struggling. He went to see them and to encourage them to continue their struggle for their rights, for their freedoms. Manute embodied everything we can think of in Sudan. … So Manute was a voice for hope.”
Manute Bol had 10 surviving children, including four with his second wife. One of his sons, Bol Bol, a 2017-18 high school senior is a prized recruit at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, California.
The younger Bol, a 221-cm center, was a finalist for the U.S. Under-19 World Cup team in the summer of 2017.
4. Serge Ibaka
A key snapshot of the Congolese native’s career: 14 points, 15 boards and 11 blocks in a February 2012 game against Denver. At the time, the 208-cm Serge Ibaka played for the Oklahoma City Thunder. One of the greatest basketball players from Africa, he stayed with OKC from 2009-16, then split the next season with the Magic and Raptors.
A powerful inside presence, Serge Ibaka averaged a career-best 3.7 blocks in 2011-12, helping the Thunder reach the Finals. He led the circuit with 2.7 bpg two seasons later.
A naturalized Spanish citizen, Serge Ibaka played for Spain’s 2011 EuroBasket gold-medal squad, and for the title runner-up squad at the 2012 London Games. Career totals: 12.0 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 2.4 bpg.
Now, he has a new three-year deal with the Raptors. What’s more, he has additional responsibilities as a new member of the NPBA Foundation, which serves as the charitable arm of the National Basketball Players Association.
Serge Ibaka broke up with glamorous longtime girlfriend Keri Hilson, an R&B singer, in 2016.
3. Luol Deng
The high-energy forward arrived in the NBA at age 19 with the Chicago Bulls in 2004. The Sudanese star was a longtime starter before moving to the Cleveland Cavaliers during the 2013-14 season. After that, he’s played for the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers.
Luol Deng, one of the greatest basketball players from Africa, entered the 2017-18 season with 825 starts in 879 NBA games. In addition, he’s averaged 15.0 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game before the 2017-18 season commenced. Most certainly, it’s a reminder of his value to his teams throughout his career.
Luol Deng signed a four-year $72 million deal with the Lakers in the summer of 2016. He averaged a career-low 7.6 points last season and has lost favor with coach Luke Walton.
On Oct. 24, 2017, Walton summed it up this way, according to the Orange County (Calif.) Register: “As of now he’s not in the rotation as far as consistently penciled in without something happening.”
In other words, expect the Lakers to trade Luol Deng, who appeared in only one of the team’s first 12 games through Nov 9, 2017.
2. Dikembe Mutombo
First of all, the ex-Georgetown big man’s defensive presence was a constant in whichever NBA arena he set foot in from 1991-2009. More importantly, it paved the way for his historic 2015 induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts.
As a result, he became the first African Hall of Famer.
An intimidating presence in the lane, the 7-foot-2 (218-cm) Congolese center earned four NBA Defensive Player of the Year awards. During his distinguished career, he had stints with the Nuggets, Hawks, 76ers (whom he helped reach the Finals in 2001), Nets, Knicks, and Rockets.
Drafted No. 4 overall by Denver in 1991, the poly-linguist trails only Hakeem Olajuwon in blocked shots in NBA history. Likewise, he’s equally unique for his given name: Dikembe Mutombo Mpolondo Mukamba Jean Jacques Wamutombo.
Also, the Dikembe Mutombo finger wag became a trademark. Wagging his finger at fans after rejecting a shot became a crowd-pleasing (or crowd-angering) tactic, depending on the venue.
Moreover, the finger wag became a staple of pop culture. How? Mutombo’s “no, no, no (not in my house)” joined the wacky world of Geico car insurance commercials a few years ago. The colorful, ever-growing collection of memes online now features that jingle.
Throughout his illustrious, 1,196-game career, the African basketball legend averaged 9.8 points, 10.3 rebounds and 2.8 blocks a game. What’s more, Mt. Mutombo received a reported $143.6 million in salary.
The generous giant established the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation in 1997 and received the NBA’s J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Awards in 2001 and ’09.
He provided $15 million to help open the Biamba Marie Mutombo Hospital and Research Center. It was named in honor of his late mother, in September 2006, in Kinshasa.
“To do something of this caliber in the name of your beloved mother, it will mean a lot not just to me but to the people of Congo,” Mutombo said in August 2006, according to The Associated Press.
1. Hakeem Olajuwon
Following Mutombo in 2015, Hakeem Olajuwon was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame a year later. For that reason, they are trailblazers for the sport in
Africa as the first — and only — Africans to become Hall of Famers.
And what a remarkable story it’s been for the Nigerian legend.
Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon was the first pick in the 1984 NBA draft. He opened the door for future generations of African basketball players. His impact cannot be overstated. He made people pay attention.
Above all, the Lagos native was tops on the NBA’s shot block chart (3,830) when he retired in 2002 — and still is No. 1.
The longtime Houston Rocket (1984-2001) played his final season with the Toronto Raptors. He led the league in blocks three times and rebounds twice.
He was a 12-time All-Star and six-time All-NBA First Team selection. His impressive NBA career stats: 21.3 points and 11.1 rebounds, 3.1 blocks, 2.5 assists and 1.7 steals.
In other words, he did it all on the court. He possessed a remarkable combination of speed, finesse, intelligence, and athleticism.
In the 1993-94 campaign, the Nigerian basketball legend took home the regular-season MVP and Finals MVP awards and was the Defensive Player of the Year. Remarkable.
Hakeem Olajuwon reportedly had a 7-foot-2 wingspan. On the other hand, he’s stated he was closer to 6-10 than being the 7-footer he was listed at.
Nevertheless, he is the greatest basketball player from Africa and his exceptional talents enabled him to earn $112.8 million in career salary.
Years before NBA scouts recognized his perennial excellence, the future Nigerian basketball legend was a soccer goalkeeper. Most noteworthy, he’s said many times that football improved his footwork, which paid off big time in basketball.
Olajuwon’s quick feet and defensive smarts guided him to a spot on the top-10 all-time steals list. This feat was previously unthinkable for a center.
Even though he first played hoops at age 17, that didn’t impede his development. Instead, his natural athletic ability led him to the University of Houston.
He teamed up with fellow future Basketball Hall of Famer and one of the best NBA players of all time, Clyde Drexler. Together, they played on the “Phi Slamma Jamma” teams coached by Gary Lewis. Olajuwon’s Cougars fell to North Carolina State in the 1983 NCAA Tournament title game. They lost to his longtime pro rival Patrick Ewing and Georgetown in the ’84 tourney finale.
After his redshirt freshman season at the University of Houston (1981-82), Hakeem Olajuwon benefited greatly from summer workouts with then-Houston Rockets star Moses Malone.
“He was the best center in the NBA at the time, so I was trying to improve my game against the best,” Olajuwon has been quoted as saying,
Houston’s Twin Towers (Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson) were instrumental in eliminating the mighty Lakers (Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, et al) from the 1986 Western Conference finals.
Legendary American coach Pete Newell once said that Olajuwon has “the best footwork I’ve ever seen from a big man.”
This included his famous Dream Shake, fakes and spin moves that frustrated and overwhelmed opponents.
One of the Nigerian’s daughters, Abi Olajuwon, is an assistant coach for the Eastern Michigan women’s team. Lita Spencer, Olajuwon’s first wife, gave birth to Abi.
Olajuwon, a devout Muslim, later married Houston native Dalia Asafi, who was then 18, in 1996.
The Rockets retired Olajuwon’s No. 34 in November 2002. Finally, it was the perfect honor for the African legend in the city where he became a global icon.