One concept that Emmanuel Okorafor has embraced and is helping him shape up his still young basketball career is that patience is realistically a virtue.
When BC Espoir Fukash drafted him out of the NBA Academy Africa as part of the Elevate Program for the Basketball Africa League (BAL) season 2 early this year, Okorafor knew he had to be humble and prove his worth on the basketball court. The 18-year-old never felt intimidated to face more experienced and older players, and let his game do the talk for him.
The first person to realise Okorafor’s willingness to learn and desire to compete at the highest level was Fukash head coach Raven Mwimba Khonde.
After Okorafor finished with 2 points and 5 rebounds in 16:05 minutes off the bench in his BAL debut against FAP, Khonde sensed something special about his recruit.
Okorafor was 17 at the time and was one of the youngest players in the tournament. He desperately needed playing time, and, Khonde offered him what he deserved.
Okorafor grabbed the opportunity with open arms, and, midway through the Nile Conference, he had already grabbed everyone’s attention.
“My performance in the BAL showed me that I am better than what I thought I am,” Okorafor said in an exclusive interview with the bal.nba.com.
His playing time increased from 16:05 minutes on Day 1 to 32:39 minutes on the last day of the Nile Conference.
“It was not easy to play against stronger and professional athletes who have been playing for years, even before I started playing basketball,” he stressed.
Although the DR Congo champions came up short of a BAL playoffs berth, Okorafor had a regular season to remember.
The 6-foot-10 power forward became the first NBA Academy Africa to record three double-doubles in five BAL games; he spent more playing time (24.01 minutes/game) than any rookie last season, and, more importantly, he became a key factor in Espoir Fukash’s only win in five BAL games.
On the night of April 20, of the Nile Conference, the Espoir Fukash trailed by as many 22 points in the second quarter against Cape Town Tigers, but Okorafor and Co were not prepared to return home empty-handed. They responded with the biggest comeback in the history of the BAL to win 96-90 in overtime.
Coincidently, or not, Okorafor had his best BAL performance in that historic night against Cape Town as he finished with 12 points, 15 rebounds, 5 assists and 4 blocks in 32.39 minutes off the bench.
“Playing in the BAL gave me a different perspective of the game. It gave me more motivation to keep working hard and improve my game,” the young Nigerian said.
But he hopes to take his game beyond the NBA Academy Africa and the BAL.
And he isn’t short of inspirational figures that, he says, continue to make him believe that hard work can pay off at some point.
“I have seen former NBA Academy players who are from Nigeria, and to see where they are now – they have grown so much,” he said when referring to Timothy Eghoefe (George Town University and Samuel Ariyibi (University of Washington - MVP of the 2019 Basketball without Borders Tournament in Senegal).
“These guys inspire me. Their journey motivates me more and more. All I have to do is to keep my head down and do what my coaches ask me to do.”
“Joining a US college, playing professional basketball. It’s hard – but – I will try to get to the NBA,”Okorafor insisted.
He recalled leaving his family back in Nigeria to join the Academy in Saly, Senegal was a tough experience. “It wasn’t an easy thing to do, but I knew it was what I wanted for my life. I want to become a better person and a better basketball player. Basketball isn’t a game for boys, it’s a game for men.”
He added: “Playing for the Nigerian national team is my dream. Guys who represent Nigeria usually put a smile on my face because Nigerian basketball has come a long way. Representing my country is going to be a big thing for me. That’s one of the goals to achieve.”
Early this month, Okorafor was part of the NBA Academy Africa team that won the 2022 NBA Academy Games in Atlanta, Georgia.
“I am happy for my guys because we showed the world that African basketball has come a long way. The talent [in Africa] is rising, and we can play at high level,” he observed.
“What we learned from this tournament that our guys are tall, athletic, but we can shoot the ball, we are skilful too. We put on a show and left a message that the world can expect talent basketball coming out of Africa. It was a great opportunity to put Africa on the basketball map,” Okorafor concluded.