The National Basketball Association, better known by its acronym, NBA, is a men’s professional basketball league in North America, comprising of 29 United States-based teams and one Canadian-based team.
The NBA, despite only featuring North American teams, employs players from all over the world as interest in the sport has soared over the past few decades. The NBA actively searches and recruits players, either directly or indirectly, to its league. This trend can be seen through the composition of teams in the NBA. For example, the 2017-18 season had a record of 108 international players from a record 42 countries and territories on opening-night rosters.
A significant portion of international players in the NBA are from Africa, following in the footsteps of past greats who went to the NBA to make their mark and have left its teams wanting to find the next great player out of the continent.
African countries have also caught the buzz as the continent now has its own international basketball tournament where scouts from the prestigious North American league come to look for players. This is because those who have made it to the NBA have gone ahead to prove that they are not just good but very good at the game. This list is a compilation of such stars in NBA with African roots who have done the continent proud.
Note that these statistics do not account for American players who are originally from elsewhere, or are children of immigrants.
1. Hakeem Olajuwon
Birthplace: Lagos, Nigeria Date of Birth: January 21, 1963Position: Center Jersey number: 34Teams: Houston Rockets, Toronto Raptors NBA draft: 1984 / Round: 1 / Pick: 1st overall Playing career: 1984–2002
Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon, regarded as the most talented center in NBA history and the best African player to play in the NBA, is number one on the best African basketball stars list.
Born in Lagos, Nigeria on January 21, 1963, Hakeem had never played the game of basketball until he arrived in the United States in 1980. He, however, went on to become one of the top centers to ever play the game. He played in the NBA for 18 years, winning double NBA Championships in 1994 and 1995 and was named NBA Finals MVP both times. He was also a 12-time NBA All-Star, two-time Defensive Player of the Year, an Olympic gold medalist, among many other accolades. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008. Hakeem Olajuwon is no doubt one of the greatest players the NBA has ever seen.
2. Dikembe Mutombo
Birthplace: Léopoldville, DR Congo Date of Birth: June 25, 1966Position: Center Jersey number: 55Teams: Denver Nuggets, Atlanta Hawks, Philadelphia 76ers, New Jersey Nets, New York Knicks, Houston Rockets NBA draft: 1991 / Round: 1 / Pick: 4th overall Playing career: 1991–2009
The fifth player to make the 5 best African basketball stars list is the 7ft 2in Congolese shot-blocking machine, Dikembe Mutombo.
Mutombo was born on June 25, 1966, in Leopoldville (modern-day Kinshasa), the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He moved to the United States in 1987 at the age of 21 to enroll in college at Georgetown University on a USAID scholarship.
Despite having high hopes of being a doctor, Mutombo flourished in basketball. In 1991, after graduating with bachelor’s degrees in linguistics and diplomacy, the Denver Nuggets drafted him with the fourth overall pick in the 1991 NBA draft.
Mutombo, till date, remains the highest-paid African player in NBA history. He earned more than $143 million in his 18 seasons in the league.
3. Steve Nash
Birthplace: Johannesburg, South Africa Date of Birth: 7 February 1974Position: Point guardJersey number: 10Teams: Dallas Mavericks, Phoenix Suns, Los Angeles Lakers NBA draft: 1996 / Round: 1 / Pick: 15th overall Playing career: 1996–2015
Steve Nash is one of those people who can be claimed by many countries to be one of their own having grown up in British Columbia, Canada, and is the child of a Welsh mother and English father. He, however, makes this list because he was born in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1974.
Steve played as a point guard for nineteen seasons in the NBA. He played for teams such as the Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas Mavericks but is best known for his time with the Phoenix Suns where he won back to back MVP titles. He is also a member of the prestigious 50-40-90 club after averaging 50+ percent in field goals, 40+ percent from the 3point line, and 90+ percent from the free-throw line in multiple seasons. He has led the league five times in total assists and assists per game.
Nash has been honored for his contributions to various philanthropic causes. In 2006, he was named by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. He also received the Order of Canada in 2007 and was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Laws by the University of Victoria in 2008.
Nash is currently the general manager of the Canada men’s national basketball team and is a player development consultant for the Golden State Warriors. He is also a co-owner of a professional soccer team; Vancouver Whitecaps FC.
4. Serge Ibaka
Birthplace: Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo Date of Birth: 8 September 1989Position: Center / Power forwardJersey number: 9Teams: CB L’Hospitalet, Ricoh Manresa, Oklahoma City Thunder, Real Madrid, Orlando Magic, Toronto Raptors. NBA draft: 2008 / Round: 1 / Pick: 24th overall Playing career: 2008-present
Serge Ibaka started his basketball career professionally in 2007 and was drafted in 2008 by Oklahoma City Thunder’s former incarnation, Supersonics, an NBA team in Seattle. The Congolese-Spanish has spent time in different teams including CB L’Hospitalet, Ricoh Manresa, Oklahoma City Thunder, Real Madrid, Orlando Magic and currently plays for Toronto Raptors. In the course of his career, he has been named the best defensive players during the regular season in the league for three-time and has led the league in blocks two times.
5. Luol Deng
Birthplace: Wau, Sudan (now South Sudan) Date of Birth: 16 April 1985Position: Small forward / Power forwardJersey number: 9Teams: Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, Miami Heat, Los Angeles Lakers, Minnesota Timberwolves NBA draft: 2004 / Round: 1 / Pick: 7th overall Playing career: 2004-2019
Luol Deng is another African player who has hit the heights in the NBA.
Deng was born on April 16, 1985, in Wau, Sudan (modern-day South Sudan). His family left the embattled African nation for England where they were granted political asylum as the second Sudanese civil war broke out.
From England, Deng moved to the United States to play basketball in both High School and College. After a year of playing college basketball at Duke University, Deng entered the 2004 NBA draft and was picked seventh overall by the Phoenix Suns.
He went on to play for the Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, Miami Heat, and the LA Lakers. Through his 14 years in the league, he’s averaged 15 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.3 assists on 45.5% from the floor and 33.2% from three-point territory.
6. Joel Embiid
Birthplace: Yaoundé, Cameroon Date of Birth:16 March 1994Position: Center / Power forwardJersey number: 21Teams: Philadelphia 76ers. NBA draft: 2014 / Round: 1 / Pick: 3rd overall Playing career: 2014-present
For two seasons (2016-2017), Embiid was delayed from starting his career after he was drafted in 2014 due to knee and foot injuries. However, when once he debuted, he proved that nothing was going to hold him back from achieving his life goals. Among the many spectacular records which the player will be remembered for are recording a career-high 46 points—the highest by a Philadelphia player in 11 years, having seven assists and seven blocked shots, which makes him the first NBA player with 40 points, seven assists and seven blocks in a game since Julius Erving against the Pistons in 1982. Embiid has also received All-Star selections three times and there are indications that the best may still be yet to come for Congolese- Spanish player.
7. Manute Bol
Birthplace: Turalei, Sudan Date of Birth: October 16, 1962 (Died June 19, 2010)Position: Center / Power forwardJersey numbers: 10, 11, 4, 1Teams: Rhode Island Gulls, Washington Wizards, Philadelphia 76ers, Golden State Warriors, Miami Heat NBA draft: 1985 / Round: 2 / Pick: 31st overall Playing career: 1985–1996
Manute Bol kicked off his NBA career after his college career at the University of Bridgeport. His first team was Washington Bullets which he joined in the 1985 NBA Draft. He played for three other teams during his career before his retirement in 1995. During his career, he dominated center position with his height of 7 ft 6 in (2.29 m) which also placed him among the tallest players in NBA history.
While he was a center, the Sudanese-American is better remembered for blocking shots rather than scoring points. As a matter of fact, he is the only NBA player to retire with more career blocked shots than points scored. But his failures are (low points scored) nearly as celebrated as his many achievements. As of 2020, he ranked second in NBA history in blocked shots per game and 16th in total blocked shots. Manute died in 2010 due to acute kidney failure and complications from Stevens-Johnson syndrome.
8. Andre Iguodala
Birthplace: Springfield, Illinois Date of Birth: January 28, 1984Position: Small forward / Shooting guardJersey number: 9Teams: Philadelphia 76ers, Denver Nuggets, Golden State Warriors, Miami Heat NBA draft: 2004 / Round: 1 / Pick: 9th overall Playing career: 2004-present
Andre Iguodala’s career history is filled with triumphs – he won three NBA championship with the Golden State Warriors, was named NBA Finals Most Valuable Player in 2015, was an NBA All-Star in 2012, and won gold medals at the 2010 FIBA World Championship and 2012 Summer Olympics. Before this time, the swingman played college basketball with the Arizona Wildcats. Then along came the talented star when he was picked by Philadelphia 76ers in 2004. Over a career that is still flourishing, Andre has achieved so much more than many that have been in the game for a longer time. And just maybe his greatest achievements are yet to come.
9. Al-Farouq Aminu
Birthplace: Atlanta-Georgia Date of Birth: September 21, 1990Position: Small forward / Power forwardJersey numbers: 2, 7, 8Teams: Orlando Magic, Dallas Mavericks, Portland Trail Blazers NBA draft: 2010 / Round: 1 / Pick: 8th overall Playing career: 2010-present
Al-Farouq Aminu began his NBA career in 2010 playing for Los Angeles Clippers. So far the 6ft 8in tall player has played for Dallas Mavericks, Portland Trail Blazers, New Orleans Pelicans, and recently Orlando Magic. He also plays internationally with the Nigerian national basketball team.
10. Bismack Biyombo
Birthplace: Lubumbashi, Congo Date of Birth: August 28, 1992Position: Center/ Power ForwardJersey number: 8Teams: Fuenlabrada-Getafe Madrid, CB Illescas, Baloncesto Fuenlabrada, Charlotte Bobcats / Hornets, Toronto Raptors, Orlando Magic, Charlotte Hornets NBA draft: 2011 / Round: 1 / Pick: 7th overall Playing career: 2009-present
Bismack Biyombo is an NBA star who hails from the Democratic Republic of Congo. He was born on August 28, 1992, in Congo. The 6 ft 8 in (2.03 m) tall player has played for notable teams including Fuenlabrada-Getafe Madrid, CB Illescas, Baloncesto Fuenlabrada, Charlotte Bobcats / Hornets, Toronto Raptors, and Orlando Magic.
Biyombo was selected with the seventh overall pick in the 2011 NBA draft by the Sacramento Kings before being immediately traded to the Charlotte Bobcats.
He has been ranked as one of the highest-paid African players in the NBA with a very bright future and is one of the top blockers in the league.
11. Pascal Siakam
Birthplace: Douala, Cameroon Date of Birth: April 2, 1994Position: Power ForwardJersey number: 43Teams: Toronto Raptors NBA draft: 2016 / Round: 1 / Pick: 27th overall Playing career: 2009-present
Pascal Siakam who is from Cameroon is one of the most consistent players in the NBA. His career history shows that growing up, he was the academic star of his family. Unlike his brothers who earned scholarships with sports to different NCAA Division I colleges, he was nursing the thought of becoming a Catholic Priest. However, Pascal gave up that thought to become a professional basketball.
It turns out to be a good career move as he has become a shining star in the game with a smooth vibe, carrying himself in a very energetic manner. In his career that started in 2016, he has won many notable honors including NBA champion (2019) NBA All-Star (2020) NBA Most Improved Player (2019) NBA D-League champion (2017), WAC Player of the Year (2015 and 2016) among others.
12. Victor Oladipo
Birthplace: Silver Spring, Maryland Date of Birth: May 4, 1992Position: Shooting guard / Point guardJersey number: 4Teams: Orlando Magic, Oklahoma City Thunder, Indiana Pacers NBA draft: 2013 / Round: 1 / Pick: 2nd overall Playing career: 2013-present
Oladipo was born to a Nigerian immigrant mom, while his father, Christopher Oladipo, a native of Blama, Sierra Leone is also of Yoruba Nigerian descent. The basketball player plays for the Indiana Pacers, an NBA team. Just like many on the list, Oladipo started his career in college playing for the Indiana Hoosiers of Indiana University Bloomington, and in the 2012-2013 season, the same time he was drafted by Orlando Magic, he was honored as the Sporting News Men’s College Basketball Player of the Year, the Co-NABC Defensive Player of the Year, and a first-team All-American by the USBWA and Sporting News
His career may have been riddled with injuries especially in 208 to 2019, but it’s hard to deny Oladipo a spot on this list for his strength and determination to excel. He’s been named NBA All-Star twice(2018, 2019), All-NBA Third Team (2018), NBA All-Defensive First Team (2018), NBA Most Improved Player (2018) NBA steals among many others.
13. Luc Mbah a Moute
Birthplace: Yaoundé, Cameroon Date of Birth: 9 September 1986 Position: Power forward / Small forward Jersey number: 12 Teams: Milwaukee Bucks, Sacramento Kings, Minnesota Timberwolves Philadelphia 76ers, Los Angeles Clippers, Houston Rockets NBA draft: 2008 / Round: 2 / Pick: 37th overall Playing career: 2008-present
Luc Mbah a Moute is another remarkable NBA star with African roots who plays in a simple yet effective style. Born to Cameroon parents, Luc Mbah a Moute started his career in the college and had a very commendable college career, winning Pac-10 Freshman of the Year (2006) and Pac-10 All-Freshman Team (2006). In 2008, he was drafted by Milwaukee Bucks. He has since moved to different teams with the latest being Huston Rockets.
14. Emeka Okafor
Birthplace: Houston, Texas Date of Birth: September 28, 1982 Position: Power forward and Center Jersey number: 50 Teams: Charlotte Bobcats, New Orleans Hornets, Washington Wizards, Delaware 87ers, New Orleans Pelicans, Ulsan Hyundai Mobis Phoebus NBA draft: 2004 / Round: 1 / Pick: 2nd overall Playing career: 2004–present
Emeka Okafor who is of Nigerian descent but born in the United States apparently doesn’t have a long career record like the other African NBA greats having started his career professionally in 2004, but it burns just as brightly. He won NBA Rookie of the Year (2005), NBA All-Rookie First Team (2005) NCAA champion (2004), NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player (2004), two-time NABC Defensive Player of the Year (2003, 2004), Chip Hilton Player of the Year (2004), First-team All-Big East (2003, 2004) and many other titles in his ever-growing career journey.
15. Thon Maker
Birthplace: Wau, South Sudan Date of Birth: 25 February 1997 Position: Power forward and Center Jersey number: 7 Teams: Milwaukee Bucks, Detroit Pistons NBA draft: 2016 / Round: 1 / Pick: 10th overall Playing career: 2016–present
Thon Maker’s career story began when he and his relatives ran out of South Sudan to find shelter in Uganda in a bid to escape the civil war. After they were accepted as refugees by Australia and the family settled in, he was discovered by a man named Edward Smith, an Australian of African-American heritage who nurtures kids from migrant backgrounds. Smith struck a deal with Maker’s family and took him to the United States where he began to hone his basketball skills. He later moved to Ontario, Canada which marked the beginning of the success he is today. His athleticism and strength on the court earned him a reputation as a defensive beast, blocking shots with fierceness, shooting from the perimeter with accuracy, and spectacular saves in playoffs.
16. Festus Ezeli
Birthplace: Nigeria Date of Birth: 21 October 1989 Position: Center Jersey number: 31 Teams: Golden State Warriors, Santa Cruz Warriors, Portland Trail Blazers NBA draft: 2012 / Round: 1 / Pick: 30th overall Playing career: 2012–2017
A Nigerian national, Fetus Ifeany Ezeli never imagined he would take up sports while growing. He focused on academics and aspired to be a physician. However, a trip to Yuba City, United States to further his academics opened his eyes to basketball being 6ft 8in tall. Ezeli became a professional basketball player in America in 2012 when he was drafted and selected by the Golden State Warriors.
He played five seasons in the NBA before his battle with injuries especially one on his left knee affected his prospect in the game. His career finally got halted in 2017 but he has since taken up coaching opportunities and embarking on community services. During his playing time, he was honored with the following awards; NBA champion (2015) and second-team All-SEC (2011).
17. Emmanuel Mudiay
Birthplace: Kinshasa, Zaire ( current the Republic of Congo) Date of Birth: March 5, 1996 Position: Point Guard Jersey number: 15 Teams: Guangdong Southern Tigers, Denver Nuggets, New York Knicks, Utah Jazz NBA draft: NBA draft 2015 / Round: 1 / Pick: 7th overall Playing career: 2014–present
Of the many things Emmanuel Mudiay has accomplished, being awarded NBA All-Rookie Second Team (2016), McDonald’s All-American (2014), and First-team Parade All-American (2014) are quite notable. Just like some on the list, Mudiay’s basketball career kicked off as a result of instability caused by his home country’s civil war. He was born in Congo. Following the death of his father and given the risk of living in an unstable region, his family sought asylum in the United States. His love for basketball started right from high school which led him to play for Grace Preparatory Academy and Prime Prep Academy in Texas. He later shunned college and instead signed up with the Guangdong Southern Tigers basketball team in China. After fighting injuries, he got drafted in NBA in 2015.
18. Ekpe Udoh
Birthplace: Edmond, Oklahoma Date of Birth: May 20, 1987 Position: Center / Power forward Jersey number: 9 Teams: Golden State Warriors, Bnei Herzliya, Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Clippers, Fenerbahçe, Utah Jazz, Beijing Ducks NBA draft: 2010 / Round: 1 / Pick: 6th overall Playing career: 2010–present
Ekpe Udoh has earned a great deal of publicity over the years due to his confidence, determination, and toughness. But these alone certainly don’t define the career accomplishments of the Nigerian-American professional basketball player. Since being drafted in 2010, he has won several awards including EuroLeague champion (2017), EuroLeague Final Four MVP (2017), All-EuroLeague First Team (2016, and 2017) Turkish League champion (2016, 2017), among others.
19. OG Anunoby
Birthplace: London, England Date of Birth: 17 July 1997Position: Small forward Jersey number: 3 Teams: Toronto Raptors NBA draft: 2017/ Round: 1 / Pick: 23rd overall Playing career: 2017–present
Anunoby was born to Nigerian parents who lived in London. He was raised by his father following his mother’s death to cancer shortly after he was born. The Nigerian-British basketball player moved to Jefferson City Missouri in the United States with his father, Ogugua Sr who had secured a job at Lincoln University. His basketball career began at Jefferson City High School and spread in his university days at Indiana University. In 2017, he was selected in the NBA draft by Toronto Raptors. Famous as the 2019 NBA champion, OG has since proven that he was born to play basketball.
20. DeSagana Diop
Birthplace: Dakar, SenegalDate of Birth: January 30, 1982Position: Currently coachingJersey number: 2Teams: Cleveland Cavaliers, Dallas Mavericks, New Jersey Nets, Dallas Mavericks, Charlotte BobcatsNBA draft: 2001 / Round: 1 / Pick: 8th overallPlaying career: 2001-2013
Although he is now a coach for Utah Jazz, DeSagana Diop had a prosperous NBA career as a player. His career as a player lasted 12 years starting from 2001 and ending in 2013. In his career, he was selected as the first-team Parade All-American in 2001.