July 27, 2022 

The world’s best prospects take on NBA Academy

“I don’t think you need words to play basketball"

ATLANTA — When looking down on the court at Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School last week, there wasn’t just basketball to be watched. During a timeout, a Brazilian coach frantically raced across the gym to find a French translator.

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“What is the word for switch or screen?” she asked.

Armed with the foreign word she rejoined her huddle, conveying a play to be set in action. In that gym a dozen langauges overlapped, along with a mix of hand signals, translated essential words, and Google Translate for 39 high school-aged women who were flown from their homes around the globe to Atlanta, Georgia, to face one another in one of the most competitive opportunities the women’s basketball landscape has to offer.

In March 2018, the NBA launched the women’s program of NBA Academy. According to the organization, NBA Academy “is a year-round elite basketball development program that provides top high school-age athletes from outside the U.S. with a holistic approach to player development and a predictable pathway to maximize their potential.”

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Since 2017 the Academy has opened four schools across the globe: Canberra, Australia; Greater Noida, India; San Luis Potosí, Mexico; and Saly, Senegal.

The NBA Academy Women’s Program has hosted international events before this year; however, the first set of inaugural Women’s NBA Academy Games took place last week at Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School in Atlanta, Georgia. Thirty-nine girls from Uraguay to India to Poland to Guinea to Australia were invited, split into four different teams, and spent multiple days learning, bonding and playing one another.

Both the rosters and the coaches were star-studded. Betty Lennox, who was named 2000 Rookie of the Year and 2004 Champion and Finals MVP over her 12 years in the WNBA, led the Red Team.

“Enjoying it is an understatement. This is a tremendous opportunity for me to coach… internationally,” Lennox told The Next.

Among the other coaches were Tamara Moore, who spent six years in the W, Yakhouba Diawara, who spent 20 years playing in the NBA and internationally, 2019 San Antonio Spurs Summer League Coach Lorena Infantes, and Roland L. Allen, who’s an Assistant Coach for the Utah Jazz.

According to former WNBA player and now NBA Academy Elite Basketball Women’s Operations Lead Monica Rogers, there is a complex selection process for establishing the rosters. The process is a mix of internal NBA scouting, feedback about top talent from national federations and NBA Academy’s own film or in-person scouting.

The event serves as a major recruiting event for both American colleges and WNBA teams. Some of the notable alumni from the program are current Liberty center Han Xu (China), UConn standouts Aaliyah Edwards (Canada) and Nika Mühl (Croatia), and Rutgers’ Aicha Ndour (Senegal).

At this year’s event, over 50 university scouts were in attendance, including representatives from Maryland, Louisville, Wisconsin, Virginia Tech, Vanderbilt, Michigan, Auburn and more. In addition, recruiters from the Atlanta Dream, New York Liberty and Seattle Storm all made appearances.

Two of the players have already committed to U.S. universities.

Akinbolawa Oyindamola of Nigeria officially signed to Auburn this June, where she will join the Tigers in August.

Akinbolawa Oyindamola of Nigeria jumps for a rebound playing for the NBA Academy Black Team. Source: NBA Academy

“I’m so excited about Auburn. I can’t wait to be there,” Oyindamola told The Next.

The other is Poland’s Agata Makurat, who has verbally committed to Vanderbilt and helped lead her NBA Academy team to an undefeated record.

Agata Makurat (9) of Poland faces off in a game with her NBA Academy Blue Team. Source: NBA Academy

Her sister, Anna Makurat, played at UConn, and she helped her sister navigate her overseas recruitment process. They also have an older sister Ola Makurat who played at the University of Utah.

“[I committed] because of the people; they’re really great. I kind of knew Coach Shea [Ralph], because she coached at UConn and my sister is playing here [in the U.S.],” Makurat told The Next. “Because I’m overseas it’s hard to pick a good university… I knew I could trust them because my sister knew them before.”

But the overall tournament standout is 15-year-old Blanca Quiñones. The 6’3 forward dominated games, led in scoring and had obvious generational court vision.

Blanca Quiñones (11) of Ecuador shoots in an NBA Academy game. Source: NBA Academy

“I have a major superstar on my team: Blanca [Quiñones] from Ecuador; 15 years old, no way,” Lennox said. “She reminds me so much of Tamika Catchings. She has a huge upside, and… I don’t think Tamika was that good at this age.”

Lennox is confident that Quiñones will be the first player from Ecuador ever drafted into the WNBA. And despite her age, she played professionally last season in Campobasso in Italy.

And despite the worldly diversity these players brought, they had many things in common.

First, players continuously echoed the importance of the opportunity the NBA Academy provides. Whether it be an opportunity to play with the best, leave their country or get exposure, the opportunity was paramount.

For each of the players who spoke with The Next, a WNBA career was at top of the goal list.

“To play and get to the WNBA, yes of course,” Oyindamola responded to a question about her career goals. “I want to and I will.”

And although everyone had the WNBA end goal, Opal Bird of Australia named something else as her first priority.

“I’m getting a gold for the Opals,” Bird told The Next. “Obviously a WNBA career, but if I can win a gold medal for Australia that would be my biggest goal.”

Opal Bird (11) of Australia passes to a teammate in a game on her NBA Academy Black Team. Source: NBA Academy

But the most heartening similarity was a bridging of differences to play together.

“It was difficult to connect and adapt at the start because she doesn’t speak English. On the court when she wanted to speak to someone who spoke English, Portuguese, etc., she couldn’t,” Franchesca Torres of Puerto Rico said via a translator. “But we figured out a way to communicate on the court and give our best on the court.”

Franchesca Torres of Puerto Rico dribbles up the court in a NBA Academy game. Source: NBA Academy

Ultimately, the barriers didn’t matter when they were playing.

“I have no idea what my teammates are saying,” Bird said. “All that you need to do is basketball… I don’t think you need words to play basketball. You just need a good attitude and effort.”

Something they did disagree on? Their favorite WNBA player. Answers included Candace Parker, Alanna Smith, Katie Lou Samuelson and Breanna Stewart.

And in addition to their idols, coaches and coordinators, the WNBA was ever-present. On Wednesday, the NBA Academy hosted a panel of former WNBA players featuring Chasity Melvin, Rushia Brown, Nakia Sanford and Tracy Henderson and appearances from coaches.

As the four friends and former teammates gave advice, answered questions and reminisced on the old times, the room erupted in delayed laughs and applause as translations took place.

“Raise your hand if you’d like to start,” Moore asked players. “Now let me say this, you might start but what if you only play one minute? I need you to start realizing that it’s about being finishers too… Know your self worth.”

And they also reflected on how far the league has come and where there’s more room to grow.

“My first year in the WNBA, I made $15,000. So ladies of today don’t know what the history was and all the sacrifices that were made by the woman that played this game,” Brown told The Next. “I think one of the ways that we can build a brand of the league is to highlight the players as women. And when I say that, not just as players, but whatever their individual interests are.”

As the game grows, hopefully, we’ll have the privilege of seeing these international talents on the collegiate, professional, and international stages very soon. Rogers estimated that 40-50% of the players would compete collegiately, and although the WNBA is infamously challenging, many speculate Quiñones and more will have W careers.

Written by Gabriella Lewis

Gabriella is The Next's Atlanta Dream and SEC beat reporter. She is a Bay Area native currently studying at Emory University.

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