Discover more from The Pick and Roll
Balling for Bangui: The Australians on their way to the Basketball Africa League
For Australian basketballers, opportunities await in Africa's BAL, and Bangui's trio is leading the way.
Credit: Bangui Sporting Club
Liz Mills should be a familiar name to long-time readers of The Pick and Roll.
The Sydney-raised coach has established herself as a pioneering powerhouse of a coach over her time in Africa thus far, notably becoming the first female head coach of a team in the Basketball Africa League (BAL), as well as the first female head coach of a country to qualify for Afrobasket with Kenya.
Once again, Mills finds herself headed for the BAL, this time with Bangui Sporting Club, and she’s brought several more Australians along with her as they aspire to challenge the continent’s best.
After a successful run with the Ivorian ABC Fighters in 2023, Mills was keen for a new challenge. Unlike her time with the Fighters, with whom she signed after the team had already qualified, Bangui - eligible for ‘The Road to the BAL’ after winning their domestic LBBB League based in the Central African Republic (CAF) - had to start from the very start of qualifying, but an exciting locally-eligible talent pool had Mills sure of the team’s potential.
“The teams that have won BAL have had great local players,” Mills shared with The Pick and Roll earlier this week. “I’ve also always been a big fan of the Central African Republic National Team - they have players playing in Pro A, ACB, G League, and the NBA Academy. I always thought that because this was a good national team, they should be a good BAL team. When I saw that they were really bringing those national team players like Max Kouguere and Jimmy Djimraybaye to play in the BAL team this year, then I said that Bangui is definitely a team that I want to work with.”
Allowed four imports, with a maximum of two non-Africans, Mills utilised her Australian roots to bolster the on-court stocks. Identifying the need for a facilitator, Mills brought in Australian-American Bijan Johnson. Most notable for his time in the NBL with the Adelaide 36ers, and most recently for his time in NBL1 Central with Central Districts, Johnson shone as arguably the event’s best setup man, recording an event-best 11.2 assists per 40.
“There’s not many point guards in Africa that are worried about facilitating - they’re about getting theirs. So for him to sacrifice and understand that he didn’t have to be the guy who went out and got 20 because we didn’t need that from him, that takes a certain level of maturity. He’s someone that can put their ego aside and do whatever it takes to help that team win, so it’s a big credit to him.
The Pick and Roll is an independent reader-supported publication. To receive new stories and support our work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
“Our biggest problem was we actually had too many people who could score and he actually had to sacrifice in terms of his scoring capabilities. His ability to facilitate and run our offence was huge for us. He understood the role of everyone on the team and how to best utilise them in our offence. He was also coachable - you ask him to do something and he does it. That skill was what made him so valuable playing in Africa.”
Close friends with Inner West Bulls coach Daniel Kim, Mills also recruited 23 year old Alex Higgins-Tisha after a breakout year in NBL1 East. Despite his relative youth, the forward was a pivotal piece for Bangui, averaging 10.4 points and 5.6 rebounds per game.
“He was really instrumental for us in those first two rounds of qualifiers, because he was the glue; the guy who didn’t need the basketball, didn’t demand anything and did all the little things really well, and you’d look at the score sheet and he’s got a double-double.
Credit: Bangui Sporting Club
“What’s so scary about Alex is he’s still got a long way to go with his development, because his ceiling is a long way off, and he has a lot of growth that he can do. I really hope that he learnt a lot not only as a player but as a person in this first overseas experience for him.”
Requiring a further African import, Mills tapped in to Emmanuel Malou, recognised through his South Sudanese citizenship. A standout for Mackay in the 2021 NBL1 North season, Malou sat out this past season with a knee injury that nearly cost him his career. But after a prolonged rest and diligent rehab with his trainer Jimmy Mullins from 4AM Academy, he was back to his best by the time he suited up in the BAL qualifiers.
Malou joined the team for the second round of qualifying games.
“I saw Manny play for South Sudan, a good friend of mine Nima Sobhani knows him very well and said Manny was going to be perfect, so that’s a big reason I brought him in,” Mills said. “He gave 110% anytime he was on the floor, be it in practice or in games. He really focused on his defence, which is something that we really hung our hat on, and to see such an offensive minded player switch and do whatever it took for our team to win, being a vet, having a player like that buy in forces everyone else around you to do the same thing.”
Mills raved about Malou, calling him ‘the ultimate role model’ and touting his leadership and work ethic, but it was his defensive effort that impressed the most on-court.
“Given he’s not renowned for his defence, what he did when he came in shows me a glimpse of what he could do if that’s his continual focus, and that’s invaluable if you have a guy like that can shoot like he does but also play above average defence,” Mills said. “Coach Liz and assistant Jeff Sparrow made it clear to me from the day we first spoke about getting me to Cameroon that I wasn’t going to come here to look for my shots and play the game I know to play, I wasn’t going to be prioritised in the offence,” Malou said.
“I understood that right away, it’s hard to jump onto a team that has had success without you and add to it. They emphasised that we were going to play a defence-first style of play for the tournament and that was our identity. I for sure feel like I’ve picked up a few new tips and tricks on the defensive end of the floor and I believe I was pushed to maximum effort to be able to help the team. I can’t thank them enough for helping me reach that new level of strength on that end of the floor.”
The trio, along with Bangui’s local CAF talent headlined by Milwaukee Bucks Summer League player Evans Ganapamo, looked great on paper, but it wasn’t an effortless route, with the team losing their opening game against the lesser touted Espoir Basket 69-73. Regrouping, and with a renewed two-way focus aided by Mills’ defensively-minded assistant Jeff Sparrow, Bangui came together to blitz both rounds of qualifying on the way to 2024 BAL qualification.
Bangui’s BAL qualification was an exciting new achievement for the program, but it also meant a lot for the players.
“It was a no brainer for the experience,” Higgins-Tisha shared. “It was really cool going to Africa - I’m really happy I did it. It was exciting for me. I’ve always wanted to go to Africa but never been. It was a big change. The weather was very tropical, 25 to 29 every day, humid, so at training you’re sweating a lot.”
“Anytime you get a chance to go play in the motherland, you gotta go,” Malou said. “It meant a lot to me to be able to go back to Africa and play in a country I’m familiar with because of our success with the South Sudanese national team. What’s beautiful about my experience was that this time I was representing a whole different country and we made history by making it to the BAL for the first time. I won’t say that it felt better than representing my own country but it’s for sure a 2.0.
“The pride and passion the people have for their country [Central Africa Republic] was amazing and we felt an energy that could only be described as special. It feels good to be recognised as one of the players that helped get us to where we are today not just as a team but as a nation, I think more importantly - me playing in Africa will hopefully encourage more of our local South Sudanese and African youths who are aspiring pro basketballers to be able to feel that they can do it too.”
Their choice to come over and play in the BAL - an undoubtedly new and developing product - is a bold one, too.
Few Australians have have preceded the trio playing in the league. Ater Majok, known to Australian fans through his various stints in the NBL, has represented US Monastir, Petro de Luanda and Al Ahly since the league’s inception, and Mayan Kiir suited up for Cobra Sport in 2022.
Though they may be the pioneers, Mills sees their presence in the league as a start for many Australians, particularly of African backgrounds, being a part of the league in the future.
“I actually think it’s a shame more Australians don’t look to play overseas. Obviously we want to develop our own leagues here, but there’s so many other opportunities, be it in Asia, Africa, Europe and South America that not only develop you as a player but more importantly as a person, and I think we need to do a better job of exploring those opportunities and providing these opportunities for players and coaches,” Mills said.
Though the African league is still solidifying its reputation throughout the basketball world, Mills believes that Australia is behind the ball when it comes to recognising the level of the BAL and its qualifying events, and with it, the ability and achievements of its participants.
“I think it’s really difficult because there’s not a level of respect or understanding about the BAL here in Australia yet. The opportunity to play in the BAL qualifiers won’t necessarily resonate here in Australia yet, but it will in other overseas markets,” Mills said.
“Obviously in NBL1 there’s athletic dudes, but over there, everyone’s athletic,” Higgins-Tisha noted. “I had to adjust to the physicality. You get bumped and hit in NBL1 but over there it’s different. Even the refs have accommodated to that style - you’re going to get bumped, you’re going to get hit around, and foul calls you might be used to they’re not going to give you over there. It made me think I might have to get a bit stronger.”
For top NBL1 level athletes, Mills argues the BAL is a much stronger pathway for professional opportunities overseas.
“The exposure is so much more than anything they would get here. We’re an NBA product, our games are on NBA TV, we’ve got European and NBA scouts, G League scouts out here. It’s an opportunity for them to be exposed and make the jump from the BAL to Europe or the G League more-so than it would be from NBL1.”
From the lens of the league, the benefits of Australian-based players right now are clear for the BAL’s growth.
“It would help raise the standard. It can’t be denied, we have a great junior development program here. It’s basically African players coming through the Australian system. That can’t be replicated on the continent at the moment. Having these African-Australians coming in, it helps raise the standard of the league and the exposure of the product.”
For South-Sudanese Australians, who make up a majority of the current African-Australian contingent of professional players, ample job opportunities may become available. Like Malou, those holding African passports can play as ‘African imports’, but the potential for a team based in South Sudan (one of which, Cobra Sport, existed in 2022), would open up the possibility for a full team of South-Sudanese passport holders to play as locals.
“If you care about them as a person, you want the best thing for them. Also understanding the political landscape in Africa, not just South Sudan, we have a lot of Nigerians here, et cetera - you want them to go back to their roots. I think there’s so many great African players here that want to go home and do something great for their countries or communities is a great way to do that.”
With both the NBA and FIBA committed to developing basketball in the region, the overall gap in infrastructure and opportunities should diminish over time, however long that may take. In 2021, the NBA created the ‘NBA Africa’ entity - a business already valued at one billion dollars. The basketball landscape is shifting, and over time, expect the BAL to continue to become a more lucrative and desirable place for players to work.
“The talent that is coming through in this next generation is scary. Because of the infrastructure and the finances being put in for the BAL, in 20 years time you’re not going to see USA, France, Serbia on the podium, you’re going to see African teams,” Mills said.
“There’s a big disparity between the top teams in the BAL and the bottom teams right now, but once we get a few more years in and these teams become franchises, which is the game plan, you’ll see the standard settle across the 12 teams and we’ll see us be able to compete with ACB, Pro A, and in the next 20 years they want this league to be one of the best in the world.”