It’s been a while since Hakeem Olajuwon gave Nigerians an NBA superstar they could call their own.
A couple of rookies this year could change that, and on Friday the NBA’s Rising Stars Challenge will highlight the pair in a game that will have a distinctly Nigerian feel.
Victor Oladipo of the Orlando Magic, born in Maryland to a Nigerian mother, and Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks, born in Athens to Nigerian parents, will be two of the most closely watched players in the game as perhaps the two most exciting rookies in the league this season.
The exhibition, meant to highlight the best of the NBA’s first- and second-year players, will give Oladipo and Antetokounmpo, both shooting guards, a chance to go one-on-one as they were matched up on opposite sides.
Oladipo, the older of the two at 21, was taken second overall in the draft last summer. He is best known for his running and jumping and the way he simply attacks the basket. More importantly, his strength and size make him one of the better defensive shooting guard prospects to come into the league in some time.
Antetokounmpo, just 19, was drafted 15th and can only be described as really, really long. Nicknamed ‘The Greek Freak,” he has long arms, long legs, long hands, and if he can fill out his frame, he’ll become a matchup nightmare.
This is what makes Friday night’s pairing so enticing – a future stopper going up against a future scorer. Both rookies. Both of Nigerian descent.
It’s not like basketball is alien to Nigeria. Olajuwon, one of the best NBA player ever, was born in Lagos. Festus Ezeli, a second-year centre on the Golden State Warriors, was born in Benin City. But never before have two potential stars with deep Nigerian connections entered the league at the same time and had a chance to rise together as now.
Their rookie seasons have had the typical bumps in the road. Oladipo will have the occasional 3-for-16 shooting game (February 2 v Boston) and Antetokounmpo might go 0-for-8 here and there (Saturday v Houston).
The raw talent, though, feels undeniable at this point. Oladipo has actually turned himself into one of Orlando’s steadier players, with 14 points, four assists and nearly four-and-a-half rebounds a game. He just may win the Rookie of the Year Award when all is said and done.
And Antetokounmpo has been the one bright spot in an otherwise miserable Milwaukee season, providing highlights like his ridiculous end-to-end block/dunk combination against Boston in November that made him look kind of like a young Dominique Wilkins. Not to mention nights like his 16-point, 10-rebound, three-block game v Brooklyn on January 27.
Antetokounmpo has already played for the Greece Under-20 side, and Oladipo has yet to really establish what he’ll do internationally.
So while it’s a longshot, if the two could somehow be convinced to team up under the Nigerian flag, the nation’s Under-17 World Cup-winning footballers won’t be their only sporting ‘golden generation’.