Nigeria go into the 2019 FIBA World Cup with arguably the most talented squad they have ever taken to a major tournament.
Half the 12-man roster possess either current or previous NBA exposure, at least one with high NBA prospects, and the others are competing at high levels in Europe and elsewhere.
It is a selection that has led to high hopes for the team to finish in the top 7 and qualify for next year’s Olympic Games.
With such a loaded squad, who should fans be looking out for in China?
AL FAROUQ AMINU
Aminu is the most recognizable player in the Nigeria squad, at least in terms of visibility. The Chief enjoyed one of his best seasons in the NBA with Portland Trailblazers, helping them reach the playoffs before signing with the Orlando Magic.
Aminu, who sat out the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, is one of the key pieces in Nigeria’s starting rotation, and averaged 11.7 PPG and 6.3 RPG during the qualifiers.
Nigeria face a difficult group with Russia, Argentina and Korea, and Aminu appreciates that the D’Tigers will have to stay locked in to finish in the top two places that gets them to the next round.
“The first three games of the First Round are going to be our first Finals,” he admitted.
“I am really excited for the start of the competition and we are going to start against a very good team of Russia. They have some very good players, with guys such as [Timofey] Mozgov and all their players that are part of some of the best European teams. “We will have to be ready and focused from the beginning of the competition, and we won’t have any room for mistakes.”
Look to Aminu, always a calm head on the floor, to be one of the players who will need to bring their NBA experience to bear, especially to force turnovers and get Nigeria going in transition.
When Jordan Nwora poured in 36 points during the FIBA World Cup qualifiers, it eclipsed the previous Nigerian scoring record of 31 points. That record was held by Diogu.
That, in some ways, signified a symbolic passing of the torch. The present taking over from the past. The teenager taking the baton from the man in his thirties.
At 35, this could be the final hurrah for captain Diogu, although if the team qualifies for the 2020 Olympic Games, he might carry on to lead them there.
Ike Diogu, the captain, held Nigeria’s scoring record of 31 points… Until Jordan Nwora scored 36 this year. Matt King/Getty Images
His international career has been as rewarding as he could ever expect it to be. An AfroBasket title complete with MVP award and then runners up plus two Olympic appearances. The World Cup is the last mountain he needs to climb and making the Final 12 is the cherry on top.
However, Diogu is a competitor and will feel insulted at any suggestion he is only in China to complete his collection. He led D’Tigers in scoring at the 2017 AfroBasket, averaging 22 points per game, and was third in rebounds.
During the 2019 FIBA World Cup qualifiers, he again led the team in points per game (15.5), third behind Senegal’s Gorgui Deng and Uganda’s Robinson Opong.
He has nothing left to prove, no NBA dreams to aspire to, but the Nigeria skipper will want to go out on a high, preferably in a blaze of glory during whatever minutes he gets on the rotation. Look out for him to spur the troops to start quick, and to get them to keep going when spirits start to flag.
Nwora is one exciting prospect, and has dispelled the doubters due to his dad, Alex, being the coach. The youngster turned heads almost from the moment he came into the Nigeria squad, and draining that record-breaking points haul was only the beginning.
Nwora, like a cold-blooded sniper, has gone on to become the team’s go-to shooter when they get in sticky situations, like he showed against Canada in an exhibition series recently.
The Louisville Cardinals star’s ability to make buckets from the arch in crucial moments is a resource that D’Tigers will be happy to have in the bank in China.
During the qualifiers, he led the team in scoring with 21.7 PPG, led in RPG with 8.0 and had a scoring efficiency of 23.7, ahead of Michael Efevberha and Al Farouq Aminu.