Ntilikina’s Rwandan roots could inspire generation

Hakeem Olajuwon put the spotlight on Africa as a hive of potential NBA superstars following a distinguished career, which resulted in being inducted to the Hall of Fame in 2008. The Nigerian won the NBA Championship twice with the Houston Rockets, winning NBA Finals MVP in both triumphs. He was named the MVP of the NBA in 1994 and was a 12-time All-Star in a career that spanned 18 years before he retired in 2002. 

Olajuwon put Nigeria and Lagos on the map

The player’s career signaled that the region could be a hotbed of talent, and it’s no surprise that others have since seen their own stars develop – such as the Toronto Raptors’ Pascal Siakam, born in Cameroon, and Serge Ibaka, born in the Republic of Congo. Both players were vital in delivering the NBA Championship last season for the Raptors, and will once again be crucial cogs in their bid to retain their crown. Their odds when betting on the NBA are valued at +1500 to win the Championship, and another title would certainly be another feather in the cap for basketball in the countries of their birth. 

There are other examples as even though All-Star Victor Oladipo was born in Maryland, his parents moved to the US having been born in Nigeria and Sierra Leone. There is ample representation from across the continent, although Rwandans are still waiting for their breakout star – and indeed, there was very limited coverage of Kagame visiting New York to attend an NBA game. There have been players plucked to play college basketball, but few have made the grade and have certainly not been able to make an impact in the form of Siakam, Ibaka, or even Oladipo. 

Frank Ntilikina could provide the answer

The 22-year-old’s mother – Jacqueline Mukarugema – hails from Rwanda, although Ntilikina himself has never visited the country of his roots since his mother moved to Belgium in 1994. In an interview in 2019, he commented on how tough even just discussing returning to the country was, remarking “We didn’t have really the time yet, but I think (she would like to) go.”

His performances will be worth a great deal not only to his family but the watching public in Rwanda, who will dream of matching his exploits to reach the highest level. The point guard made his name in Strasbourg and was touted to be selected with the first-overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. He had to wait for the eighth spot where the Knicks secured his services.

Not rising through the collegiate system can prove tricky

Joining Knicks in the 1970s or 1990s would be a dream spot for any player. Nowadays not so much – the franchise is currently going through a period of strife and has failed to reach the post-season for the last seven years on the bounce. It’s not easy for any player to make the transition into the NBA from Europe never mind arriving at a team that will be hiring their fifth coach in seven years. Ntilikina has struggled to find his feet at Madison Square Garden, even after a steady rookie season. 

Breaking out of the shadow of New York and the expectations of being a high draft pick could be the making of the 22-year-old. He’s still very young and inexperienced compared to his contemporaries, who have come through the ranks of the US collegiate system. There’s still ample time for him to make an impact. 

Finding his role on the court and playing in the right system under the right coach could bring the best out of the guard. Maybe then he can make that long-awaited trip to Rwanda with the NBA Championship in hand, matching the exploits of great players of the past to have their roots embedded on the continent.