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The Seed of Senegal Basketball

Last year, Gorgui Dieng signed the biggest contract ever for a West African basketball player. His career was made possible by the likes of DeSagana Diop, and is the first sign of the coming wave of Senegalese basketball talent.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Surrounded by suits, Gorgui Dieng was rocking sweats.

The Minnesota Timberwolves higher-ups waited their turn. First Dieng parlayed with owner Glen Taylor, then GM Scott Layden, then the team lawyer. The front-office personnel said their piece, and contract discussions were nearly finalized. But Dieng wanted to speak with one final adviser. So he called his wife, Amalia.

“She was like, ‘Yo. Sign the deal,’” Dieng said, laughing about it now. The 6-foot-11 center makes most everything appear undersize, but the laminate table where he sat last October in the Wolves’ practice facility looked especially small. Maybe it was his 6-foot-10 agent standing behind him, resting a hand on the back of Dieng’s chair. Or maybe it was the massive amount of money promised in the papers below. An iPhone flashed, snapping a picture. Pen in hand, Dieng took his wife’s advice.

Dieng plays his part as a clean-up role player for the Timberwolves well this season. On a team with two former Rookie of the Year winners, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, and budding star Zach LaVine, he’ll never even be the third-flashiest guy on the court — even if he has the league’s most under-the-radar-lethal midrange shot. But with an NBA top-10 real defensive plus-minus, he is the most effective defensive player for head coach Tom Thibodeau. He’s also among the loudest, communicating, switching, and spacing the young squad, and taking the tough assignments off Towns’s plate. The four-year, $64 million deal he signed is the largest contract drawn up for a West African basketball player in NBA history. Dieng didn’t relish the historical nature of the moment. “No,” he said. “I wasn’t thinking that.” The number was sound, his starting role with the team was encouraging, and Minnesota was a place to raise a family. Historic sentiments aside, he made a business decision.

Dieng is from Senegal, a coastal West African country, as is Makhtar Ndiaye, his agent when Dieng signed with the Wolves and now a scout for the New York Knicks. Ndiaye became the first Senegalese-born NBA player when the Vancouver Grizzlies signed him as a free agent for the 1998–99 season. It was his only year in the league, and he played four games for an 8–42 team in a strike-shortened season. The advancement from Ndiaye’s brief playing career to the point that Dieng signed that eight-figure deal mirrors the improvement in youth basketball in Senegal, a story of improving the odds.

In the U.S., only 0.03 percent of high school ball players get drafted into the NBA. Basketball starts young here. Talented players are plugged into AAU teams, hooked up with trainers and coaches, entered into heavily scouted tournaments, and sent to prep schools. Yet the infinitesimal 0.03 percent stands. In Senegal, at least before the past 10 to 15 years, none of that infrastructure existed.

The hallmarks of an NBA player’s journey — photos of a toddler in an oversize Jordan jersey, home video of a middle school game shot on mom’s Sony, McDonald’s All American footage — never happened for Dieng. He began playing organized basketball at 16. Until recently, that was normal for those who take up the sport in his soccer-loving reu, which means country in Dieng’s native language, Wolof. Coincidentally, considering his late basketball start, Gorgui means the old one.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Dieng started playing in the States in 2009, attending Huntington Prep, in West Virginia, where he became fluent in both English and basketball. He was 19 before he learned what the three-second violation was. For him, less than a half a percent chance seemed generous.

Twenty-one West African natives made it to the Association before Dieng. He’s just the ninth Senegalese-born player to ever make the leap (the 10th and most recent, Maurice Ndour, signed a two-year deal with the Knicks in July after going undrafted in 2015). Dieng and his agent account for a fifth of the country’s NBA history. It’s difficult to be discovered in Senegal. A decade ago, it came down to foreign scouts stumbling onto a player with unignorable length or athleticism.

But Dieng had something new to elevate him: a budding basketball program, the first of its kind in his country.

Imagine if Anthony Davis’s professional success depended on the groundwork laid by DeMarcus Cousins. To understand Dieng’s journey to the NBA, you must know the three Senegalese mainstays who paved the way: Ndiaye, Amadou Gallo Fall, and DeSagana Diop. The country’s basketball history, though brief, is compactly intertwined and dense with recurring characters. Without the three of them, the likelihood of Dieng being discovered needles toward zero.

Fall, former Dallas Mavericks VP of international affairs and director of player personnel and now a VP for NBA Africa, founded the SEED Project, the Senegalese basketball academy that molded Dieng in 2008. Short for “Sport for Education and Economic Development,” SEED fills the gap for players who don’t have access to the overseas AAU pipeline. SEED is based in Thiès, in a government facility that resembles a boarding school, complete with classrooms for test prep, a cafeteria, and a basketball court inside an airplane hangar. The academy holds an annual tryout, selects players, then trains them, putting them on a fast track for a scholarship. But long before it was an esteemed academy partnering with the NBA, it was an idea in the back of Fall’s mind. And it didn’t come to him in a basketball gym, but rather in a laboratory, where Fall was doing medical research after getting his degree in microbiology from the University of the District of Columbia in 1993.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

While Fall was thinking about going to medical school, he became involved with the game back home, hoping to give boys from Senegal the same kind of educational opportunity he got in the States. Such was Senegal’s basketball infrastructure at the time that a former player working in a lab in D.C. was a viable option to be one of the leaders of the country’s hoops development efforts. He organized the 1997 Senegalese national team, which won the FIBA African Championship. Ndiaye was the team’s center, though the two were close long before the gold-medal run, meeting when Ndiaye came stateside for high school. After the success of the ’97 team, Fall shared the idea for SEED with his confidant. Ndiaye encouraged him to pursue it, and even donated his first NBA check in support.

Ndiaye’s career came about thanks to a string of chance happenings. After moving from Senegal to France as a child, he quite literally outgrew soccer. The son of an Olympic track star mother, he grew to be 6-foot-10, with a frame suited for basketball. In the early ’90s, his big opportunity presented itself after his French club beat two traveling U.S. squads. Dave Odom and John Thompson, then the coaches at Wake Forest and Georgetown, respectively, flew to France to watch the American teams, but the Senegal-born center wound up catching their eye instead.

Odom made an elevator pitch to Ndiaye on playing in the U.S., and in the early ’90s, the 17-year-old took an eight-hour flight from France to New York. He then was driven to his new school, R.J. Reynolds, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina (a nine-hour ride), only to find that the coach of the team didn’t think much of his jetlagged performance. Ndiaye was equally unimpressed with America and thought, “Perfect, I can go home now.” Except another coach, who’d been hanging out in the corner of the R.J. Reynolds gym and was intrigued by his skills, stepped in and said, “Let me have him.” It was Steve Smith of Oak Hill Academy, who Ndiaye says just happened to be passing through. And after a three-hour drive to Virginia (and the requisite behind-the-scenes work), Ndiaye became part of one of the great high school basketball talent factories in the country, joining the 1992–93 team — all because Odom happened to be at the tournament in France.

Despite whatever obvious physical attributes and raw talent Senegalese players had in the late ’80s and into the ’90s, the opportunity for them to be discovered depended mostly on happenstance and multiple lucky encounters. Guys before Dieng’s generation started playing basketball well into adolescence, and there was no network of scouts, coaches, or agents to help their careers.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Take Diop’s career as another instance of chance. Like his distant cousin Ndiaye, Diop was also plagued by height. As a lanky 15-year-old, he had grown too tall to stay competitive on a soccer field. His friends thought it would be fun to attend an upcoming 16-and-under basketball tournament, and despite picking up the sport only a year before, Diop played along. “For fun,” he said. Fall was at the tournament, immediately noticed Diop’s length, approached him about playing seriously, and guided his journey to Oak Hill. Diop, now on the Utah Jazz coaching staff, was the first Senegalese player to have serious longevity in the NBA, playing 12 seasons.

Without that chance meeting, Dieng might never have made it to SEED, and in fact the program might not exist at all. During Diop’s first year in the NBA in 2001–02, Fall told him that the 16-and-under tournament where they met was being discontinued because of a lack of funding. So Diop used part of his rookie salary to sponsor the event, and for the first time, they held it in the government facility it’s still held in today.

Come tournament time, seeing the way players interacted in the boarding-school-like environment reminded Fall of INSEP, the French institution that produced Tony Parker, Boris Diaw, and Ronny Turiaf. He realized he could turn his idea into an academy much like the French program. “I thought, ‘OK, maybe this is it,’” Fall said. “‘We’re going to find a way through SEED to come and work with the government to start basically the same institution that they have in France.’ … That is really how it started.”

Five years later, Dieng played in the 16-and-under, which he affectionately refers to today as “Diop’s tournament.” At 17, he was technically too old to enter, but an exception was made for the kid from the country, since living 50 miles away in Kebemer, where his father was mayor for more than 20 years, granted him little chance at exposure. It was there that SEED scouts discovered Dieng.

Ask anyone in his hometown, including his mother, and they’d likely say Gorgui Dieng was supposed to play professional soccer.

Dieng had flirted with basketball as a kid, rebounding for his older sister as she played on a court built adjacent to their house, but he didn’t particularly care for it. He spent his time at a recreation center, playing soccer every day. Only when he was bored would the future NBA player go over to the basketball court and shoot around. As Dieng grew older and taller, he had trouble finding soccer cleats that fit. Eventually, he couldn’t find any at all, and switched to basketball full time. “They were very disappointed when I played basketball,” Dieng told me of his friends and family’s reaction to his switching sports. (Were they still upset now that he’s an NBA player? He laughed. “I hope not.”)

Patrick Engelbrecht, the director of global scouting for the Toronto Raptors who met Dieng during his time working with SEED, credits that rec center for Dieng’s hand-eye coordination, which was far more developed than he typically saw in a country full of soccer players. That type of multi-sport complex is rare in Senegal, where to this day, according to Dieng, there are four indoor gyms in the entire country.

“They don’t play ping-pong growing up,” said Engelbrecht. “They don’t play catch with a baseball growing up. They don’t go out in the yard and throw the football around with their friends. Those opportunities to build hand-eye coordination don’t exist in their culture. Soccer is the dominant youth sport … It’s still one of the big hurdles for African players, especially if they are introduced to the game late, the ability to catch the ball at high speeds in tight spaces, which is what basketball at the highest level is all about.”

Dieng, the second SEED product ever to be drafted — Mouhamed Sene was first in 2006, selected 10th overall by the then-SuperSonics — made the same impression on Fall as he did on Engelbrecht.

“He stood out,” Fall said. “He was not 6-foot-11 at the time. Maybe he came in at 6-foot-8. There were guys that were bigger than him at the time in terms of size, but there was an attitude, just a demeanor. There’s this athletic arrogance that’s very subtle that jumps at you right away.”

From 2006 to Dieng’s 2008 class, more talent passed through SEED than ever before, with attendees like Assane Sene, Moussa Gueye, Youssou Ndoye, Aziz N’Diaye, Baye Moussa Keita, and Cheikh Mbodj, who played college ball for Virginia, Alabama, St. Bonaventure, Washington, Syracuse, and Cincinnati, respectively. Six, including Dieng, would make the 2012 NCAA tournament and three advanced to the Sweet 16. The next year, Dieng would go on to win it all with Louisville.

But before Huntington Prep and Louisville, there was SEED in 2008 and a 2009 Basketball Without Borders camp in South Africa, where he won MVP honors and met Dwight Howard, Chris Bosh, and Dirk Nowitzki. After that camp, Dieng formed the goal he’d spend the next eight years pursuing.

“I was like, ‘Oh. I want to be an NBA player,’” he said. “‘If I can be, I will be.’”

Back in 2007, when Dieng attended the 16-and-under tournament, he was spotted by the coach of Senegal’s national team. In 2009, after SEED, he was invited to attend national team tryouts in Italy. By far the youngest player there, he roomed a few doors down from someone with quite a bit more experience: Diop. When the national team wasn’t practicing, Dieng did his rookie duties — running errands for the older guys, especially Diop, who he peppered with questions about the league.

“I was coming to his room 24/7,” Dieng remembered. “He wanted me to go get stuff for him. I’m going to go get it, but I’m going to keep asking him questions.

“‘What’s the NBA like?’

“‘What do people do?’

“‘Is it true that this guy shoots like that?’

“I basically go in my room only to sleep … [When] everybody’s resting, I’d be in Sagana’s room talking to him. He’d be like, ‘Yo, kid, go to your room. I want to take a nap.’ I’d be like ‘Nah.’ I just kept asking questions.”

DeSagana Diop (Getty)
DeSagana Diop (Getty)

To Diop, Dieng stood out from the other young Senegalese players he had met before.

“I could just feel the hunger,” Diop said. “That’s the first kid I ever met from Senegal who was asking me those kinds of questions … You could see he wanted to make it.”

Dieng learned all about U.S. basketball during those tryouts, then put it to use later that year. Coached by Engelbrecht, his SEED class traveled to the States to participate in a Nike Global Challenge tournament. They saw tough competition right away. Their first game was against Team USA Midwest, made up of elite high schoolers. Dieng won the game with a buzzer-beating turnaround 3.

According to Engelbrecht, it was the first time Senegal beat a U.S. team, at any level of the game.

Dieng arrived late to basketball, but the days of Senegalese kids beginning their basketball careers at 15 are over.

“Gorgui came over here and he was a work in progress from the start,” said Jeremy Kipness, a former Louisville student-manager and SEED director of player development. “He started playing at 16, and he was learning the game at a late age. Now you’re going to see these kids come in and know what they’re doing at 12, 13.”

Knowledge of the game is something Utah Jazz forward Boris Diaw, whose father is Senegalese, focused on since partnering with SEED to make a girls’ program.

“You start with the coaches,” Diaw told me. “I think for years, [Senegal] was out of date on basketball … like you didn’t have access to what other countries are doing. … I think the thing that we saw was a lot of the coaches that were there are really passionate, great coaches in what they were doing, but they were teaching what they were taught like 20 years ago, which, you know, basketball evolves. It’s different.”

The lack of elite youth coaches is a disadvantage for kids in Senegal, compared with the development of young U.S. players.

“That person with that skill set doesn’t exist everywhere in the country,” Engelbrecht said. “Take a young player that has NBA-level talent. He might not yet have NBA-level skill. But he’s 16 years old. He’s 6-foot-9 or 6-foot-10. He can run and jump — maybe doesn’t have the hand-eye coordination, or the footwork, but has all the raw ability and hasn’t been coached — but has someone who never played or coached the game at a high level teaching him how to play. So there’s a little bit of a disconnect there.”

The main source of West African basketball knowledge comes from SEED academy graduates. “The remarkable thing is,” Kipness said, “they go back. And they’re the leaders they need.” Jules Camara, who attended the University of Kentucky, is now the head coach at SEED. Abdou Diame, who attended Auburn and Jacksonville State, is also working with the academy. Dieng returns every summer.

“Those kids are now starting to figure out, ‘OK, my basketball playing career is now coming to an end.’ And they want to stay a part of the game and give back what they’ve learned,” said Engelbrecht. “And now, that generation are becoming the basketball administrators, the basketball youth coaches, the national team coaches, the junior national team coaches, the agents. They’re the ones who are building that basketball ecosystem … [T]hat’s going to drive player development in the next 10 to 20 years.”

The general exposure to the game is larger, too, thanks to players like Dieng having success. “Now it’s different,” Diaw said, “because you’ve got internet. You’ve got access to the games and stuff, which was not necessarily the case even when I was there like 15 years ago.” Engelbrecht remembered visiting the camp in 2004 and struggling to email his then-fiancée through the dial-up internet.

Starting at an earlier age with better coaching yields skill, a lack of which, combined with a glut of height, has pushed Senegalese players to the inside when they’ve come to the U.S. The 10 Senegalese players who have made it to the NBA were all bigs. Those who have seen success at the collegiate level are typically the same.

In a 2011 documentary about SEED, Elevate, made by Anne Buford, there’s an exchange between Aziz N’Diaye and his new Lake Forest Academy teammate after his first practice. The teammate asks him if this is how they play in Senegal. N’Diaye responds that there are some differences. “We shoot a lot,” the teammate says, flicking his wrist, sinking an imaginary shot. “And you make it,” N’Diaye said, shaking his head. “That’s wonderful.” The documentary came out only six years ago, but already there’s a noticeable difference in ballhandling and shooting ability in Senegalese basketball.

“When you think African basketball, and you think Senegal,” Kipness said, “you think of these big centers and power forwards, but the thing that’s going to be a trend is you’re going to start seeing guards come out of Senegal, out of SEED.”

Kipness used SEED alumni Makhtar Gueye as an example. Gueye, committed to UAB for the 2017 recruiting class, received offers from Marquette, UConn, Florida, Creighton, and Rutgers, among others. At 6-foot-9, he’s listed as a power forward, but his fluidity and high motor make him a versatile hybrid with excellent perimeter shooting, “a wing in every sense of the word,” Kipness said.

There’s an easy connection between the age Gueye began playing, 10, the coaches who worked with him, and his diverse skill set. Fall cited Gueye as an example of the younger players now determined to play basketball early on — a long way removed from him approaching Diop in the tournament many years ago. He could be emblematic of a new wave of NBA-caliber players from Senegal.

“There will be,” Dieng responded over the phone when asked about more prospects from the country. His 2-year-old son shouted “Daddy! Daddy!” in the background, and as he entertained his first-generation American-born toddler, he spoke of the boys back home.

“They’re coming.”