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2020 NBA Draft class features record-high number of players of Nigerian origin

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More than the usual smattering of Nigerian eyes will be fixed on the NBA Draft on Wednesday, as a record-high chunk of the class is made up of Nigeria-origin players.
A total of seven players, two born in Nigeria, will be in consideration for pickup by some of the best basketball teams in the world.
Onyeka Okongwu is in the conversation for not just for the top 5 pick, but could well rival James Wiseman, Lamelo Ball, and Anthony Edwards for the number one overall pick.
Precious Achiuwa and Udoka Azubuike are the two who were born in Nigeria. If both are selected in the top 30, it would be the first time that two players from Nigeria are selected in the first round of the same NBA Draft.
Along with Achiuwa and Azubuike, there are also Onyeka Okongwu, Isaac Okoro, Zeke Nnaji, Daniel Oturu, and Jordan Nwora on the cards.
“I think it’s big,” Achiuwa said in a pre-Draft Zoom call with ESPN.
“It just shows there’s a big talent culture in Nigeria when it comes to basketball, athleticism and athletes as a whole in general.
“It speaks to how competitive we are and our willingness to be better in whatever we do.”
It is a testament both to how far the Nigerian community in the USA has come, and how much basketball has grown back home.
In 1984, when Akeem Olajuwon was drafted number one overall to the NBA — ahead of even Michael Jordan — he was the lone Nigerian, nay African, in that Draft Class.
It took another 10 years before the NBA drafted another player of Nigerian descent when the New Jersey Nets picked up Yinka Dare from George Washington, and another four years before Michael Olowokandi was drafted number one overall by the LA Clippers.
Thirty six years on from that first, pivotal draft, the 2020 NBA Draft Class — like the 2020 NFL Draft Class before it — boasts the highest number of players of Nigerian origin.
Nwora already represents Nigeria senior men’s basketball team. Oturu’s father, Francis, played table tennis for Nigeria.
Okongwu is in the conversation for not just for the top 5 pick, but could well rival James Wiseman, Lamelo Ball, and Anthony Edwards for the number one overall pick, and he is not shy about it.
“I feel like I’m higher than all of them,” he told ESPN. “I just do all the little things well. I just play basketball. I know how to win.”
Also projected to be a high pick is Isaac Okoro, the 6’6 shooting guard/small forward from Auburn.
All told, there are more than 30 current and former NBA players with Nigerian roots, including the likes of Andre Iguodala, Victor Oladipo, Bam Adebayo, and the Antetokounmpo brothers, led of course by legendary Hall of Famer Olajuwon.
Achiuwa said that it is a trend the current class will seek to carry on: “I think we have the opportunity to keep that legacy going, especially that Nigerian representation in the NBA.”
That representation has been helped in no small part by the work of a man who himself was in a similar position some 20 years ago.
Former Nigeria captain Olumide Oyedeji was drafted out of German team DJK Wurzburg [Dirk Nowitzki played there too] and has run basketball camps every year in Nigeria for 20 straight years until this year’s COVID-19 interruption.
Over 35 000 kids have passed through the camp in those 20 years, including Azubuike.
Oyedeji, who played three seasons in the NBA, projects that the number will rise in the future and also expects the players to continue to light the way for others.
“We are a country of about 200 million people and with the way Nigerians are migrating to the USA, don’t be surprised to see 20 in the next Draft Classes in the future,” Oyedeji told ESPN.
“We already have three projected to go in the lottery this year.
“It is a positive thing and I feel proud. For other people back home, it is just the same way. We just have to translate it to sports development back home.
“And they should know and remember where they come from because it goes beyond basketball.”
Pivotal to the increase in Nigerian names in the NBA is Fubara Onyanabo, a man whom many in Nigeria have barely heard of, but has mentored a long list of players, including some currently representing in Nigeria’s national team.
Achiuwa was not shy about paying tribute to Fubura, who coached the player’s elder brother: “He is doing a great job, advancing the game and making sure that the kids back home have a way to learn the game.
“He is providing resources for the kids and I think that that is absolutely big having someone that is so passionate about basketball back home. I think that is really important.”
Onyanabo, who has coached Nigeria’s national teams at various age levels, has been doing so since 2009. With no resources, he poured his heart and soul and money into running the basketball camps.
While he is gratified to see that his passion is bearing fruit thousands of miles away on a global stage, even if indirectly, his priorities are set differently.
“For me, it is a passion and a calling,” Onyanabo told ESPN. “After my playing career ended, I found that although kids around me loved basketball and loved watching the NBA, they did not have the right skills to play, so I decided to start training them.
“For me, it is not about talents that are exported outside Nigeria. It is the ability to keep these young people busy and channel their energy towards positive and productive ventures here in Nigeria.
“My fulfilment is the ability to put smiles on the faces of these kids. They don’t pay to learn or play basketball. We just want to keep them happy and away from trouble.”
Along with the Nigerians in the Draft Class, there is also some other history to be made at an African level.
The Draft also includes Mamadi Diakite, who was born in Guinea, Paul Eboua, born in Cameroon, Karim Mane and Lamine Diane, both born in Senegal. If they are all drafted it would break the record for the most players to be drafted from the continent. Four were drafted in 2016.
Whatever happens, Oyedeji has some words of advice: “The work starts when they are drafted. They have to be ready at all times, even if they are on the bench. Always be ready to be the next man up.”

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Ronaldo Misses Portugal Training Ahead Of South Korea Clash

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Cristiano Ronaldo

Cristiano Ronaldo did not train with his Portugal teammates on Wednesday ahead of their final World Cup group game against South Korea.

The Portuguese striker, 37, was doing “specific recovery work” according to a source from the Portuguese football federation.

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Ronaldo, without a club since leaving Manchester United during the tournament, scored a penalty in his country’s opening win over Ghana.

Portugal beat Uruguay 2-0 in their second match to qualify for the last 16, with Ronaldo appearing to claim a goal but he did not touch the ball and it was awarded to teammate Bruno Fernandes.

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Mexico exit World Cup despite beating Saudi Arabia

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Mexico suffered an agonising exit from the World Cup on goal difference on Wednesday despite beating Saudi Arabia 2-1 in a dramatic finale to Group C.

Second-half goals from Henry Martin and Luis Chavez secured victory for Mexico but they finished third behind Poland after Salem Al-Dawsari’s late strike.

Mexico desperately pushed for a third goal in an effort to improve their goal difference as they faced elimination on FIFA fair play rules.

Saudi Arabia’s win over Argentina in their opening match was one of the World Cup’s great upsets, but they crashed back down to earth with a 2-0 loss to Poland in their second game.

Coach Herve Renard urged his players to show that was no flash in the pan and write themselves into Saudi football history by reaching knockout rounds for the first time since 1994.

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Having failed to win either of their first two group games for the first time in 44 years, Mexico knew victory was essential if they were to stand a chance of reaching the last 16 at an eighth successive World Cup.

Mexico boss Gerardo Martino ditched the back five he used in the 2-0 loss to Argentina and brought in Martin to lead the attack.

It almost reaped immediate rewards but Saudi goalkeeper Mohammed Al-Owais raced out to block Alexis Vega after he was slipped in behind the defence by Hirving Lozano.

Al-Owais, one of the heroes of the 2-1 win over Argentina, tentatively palmed away a bouncing cross ahead of a lunging Martin and held weak attempts by Chavez and Orbelin Pineda.

Mohamed Kanno whipped a free-kick just over for Saudi Arabia, who saw defender Ali Al-Bulayhi forced off with injury — adding to their mounting casualty list.

Mexico continued to attack without success and Ali Al-Hassan nearly sent the bulk of the largely Saudi crowd wild late in the first half with a diving header that flashed wide of the far post.

Chavez tested Al-Owais right after the interval and Martin soon broke the deadlock as he turned in from close range following Cesar Montes’ clever flick-on at a corner.

Mexico’s second goal arrived just five minutes later when Chavez sensationally curled a free-kick into the top corner from 30 metres.

Keeping an eye on the score between Argentina and Poland, Mexico pushed relentlessly for a third goal, with Lozano’s effort ruled out for a tight offside.

Martin blazed over when he had a glorious chance and Chavez had another free-kick turned away by Al-Owais, who also sprawled to his right to claw out a drive from Lozano.

Uriel Antuna then had another goal disallowed for offside before Al-Dawsari’s late strike put an end to the drama.

AFP

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Argentina beat Poland 2-0, advance to last 16

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Lionel Messi had a penalty saved but Argentina still advanced to the last 16 of the World Cup as Group C winners after a 2-0 victory over Poland on Wednesday.

Poland also went through as runners-up although a 2-1 win for Mexico over Saudi Arabia in the group’s other game meant Czeslaw Michniewicz’s side advanced only on goal difference.

Alexis Mac Allister’s 46th-minute goal settled Argentina’s nerves after a tense first half, before Julian Alvarez doubled their lead just over 20 minutes later.

Argentina had been unable to find a way past Wojciech Szczesny in an opening 45 minutes in which the Poland goalkeeper saved his second penalty of the tournament.

Szczesny was adjudged to have fouled Messi while stretching to reach a cross, but he dived to his left to beat away the resulting spot-kick.

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It was the 31st penalty Messi had failed to convert in his career.

Poland offered little attacking threat, with star striker Robert Lewandowski virtually anonymous throughout.

Instead it was left to Szczesny to take centre stage for the Poles, denying Messi with two crucial early stops.

First Messi wriggled clear of a pack of defenders before producing a shot that flew straight at the keeper.

Then he found space to charge into the Polish box down the left, forcing Szczesny to make a save at his near post.

Argentina continued to create the better chances in the first half and Marcos Acuna flashed a shot wide after Alvarez had also gone close to breaking the deadlock.

Szczesny had to scramble to stop Angel di Maria scoring direct from a corner, before the goalkeeper was again called into action to deny Alvarez.

– Penalty save –
Szczesny outdid himself when he dived to his left to stop Messi’s penalty in the 39th minute.

He still had more to do before the half-time whistle, punching away a shot from Alvarez before saving the follow-up from Rodrigo de Paul.

There was nothing he could do when Mac Allister broke the deadlock less than a minute after the interval.

Nahuel Molina charged down the right, then cut the ball back for Mac Allister to drill just beyond Szczesny’s reach.

The goal forced Poland to show some belated attacking ambition and Kamil Glik headed just wide from a free-kick almost immediately after the restart.

Argentina continued to go in search of more goals and Alvarez scored their second after combining well with Enzo Fernandez.

Fernandez, making his first start for Argentina, picked out his team-mate, who held off a defender before lashing the ball past Szczesny.

Poland were still walking a tightrope with yellow cards potentially crucial to their chances of reaching the last 16.

Grzegorz Krychowiak went into the book in the 83rd minute but a late goal for Saudi Arabia against Mexico saw the Poles safely through on goal difference.

AFP

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