Fifteen years after Ike Diogu was a first-round NBA draft pick, Nigerians are setting records.
Diogu was the lone Nigerian-American among a group of international players selected back in 2005. This year, a whole starting five and then some could be built from all the picks with Nigerian ties.
“I saw the wave that was coming, but I was just happy the rest of the world got to see it,” said the 37-year-old Diogu, the captain of the Nigerian national team.
The NBA hailed last week’s draft as “historic” because for the first time two players from Nigeria were first-rounders, and another six who have at least one Nigerian parent were also picked.
As the rookies sign their first contracts ahead of the NBA season scheduled to start Dec. 22, now comes the hard part of making the team and getting playing time.
Selected ninth overall by the Golden State Warriors, Diogu had thought he would be a cornerstone of a rebuilding franchise. But he was traded during his second season.
“It’s good to mentally prepare yourself that anything can happen,” Diogu said in an interview from Rwanda, where the Nigerian national team is playing this week.
Diogu, who played at Arizona State, hopes his fellow Nigerians — and other draft picks — avoid the pitfalls he encountered. He recalled thinking he needed to impress as a rookie by flashing his full repertoire of post moves. But a coach told him, ”‘you’re making the game too complicated.’”
“Make the game simple,” Diogu said. “Play your style of basketball and let the game come to you, instead of of going out there and pressing.”
After a solid rookie season — he averaged 7 points and 3.3 rebounds in 15 minutes per game — the Warriors hired Don Nelson, whose up-tempo, small-ball plan didn’t include Diogu, a 6-foot-9, 250-pound post player.
Following six NBA seasons, the Texas native began a successful overseas stint, mainly with teams in Asia. He’s played in two Olympics with Nigeria, and plans to play at the Tokyo Games, also, with Nigeria already qualified.
He watched last week’s draft from Phoenix, where he spends off-seasons, before traveling to Rwanda for a continental tournament.
The Nigeria-born first-rounders — Precious Achiuwa (20th, Miami Heat) and Udoka Azubuike (27th, Utah Jazz) — both played high school and college basketball in the United States. The other six include Isaac Okoro (5th, Cleveland Cavaliers) and Onyeka Okongwu (6th, Atlanta Hawks).
The NBA hailed it as a “historic night” for Nigeria, Africa’s most-populous country.
“This achievement further showcases Nigeria’s long basketball tradition and African players’ continued impact on the game of basketball around the world,” said Victor Williams, CEO of NBA Africa.
Nigeria has given the NBA two No. 1 overall picks — Hakeem Olajuwon in 1984, and Michael Olowokandi in 1998. The numbers have increased in recent years. Five players of Nigerian descent were selected in the 2017 Draft. League MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, drafted in 2013, was born in Greece to Nigerian parents.
Miami Heat president Pat Riley described Achiuwa as “one of the most underrated players in the draft” and noted that he’s only been playing organized basketball for six years.
Achiuwa grew up in Port Harcourt in southeast Nigeria and said he wants to represent “where I’m from, my whole country behind me, my whole city.”
Okoro said his mother always told him “to keep that Nigerian pride. Even though I wasn’t born in Nigeria, I still got Nigerian blood.”
Diogu knows that feeling. Growing up near Dallas, he learned as much about his parents’ Imo state as he did about the Lone Star state.
“I was born in the U.S. but I grew up in the U.S. as a Nigerian,” he said. “I was around the Nigerian community, I went to a Nigerian church, Nigerian parties, all of my friends were like me — both parents were Nigerian.
“So my parents always made sure to let it be known that you are Nigerian and you need to know the ways of the culture, food, music, everything … Everybody’s clothes would smell like the food that your mom was cooking, the dried fish or the goat meat or whatever.”
Regardless the nationality, NBA success isn’t just about talent, Diogu said. A first-rounder playing behind a $30 million-per-year player may only get spot minutes, for example.
“As crazy as it sounds,” he said, “there’ll be some second-round picks that get into situations that are better than first-round picks.
“It’s a fine line between success and failure in the NBA.”