March 31, 2022
Preparation, opportunities and friendship: The NBA Academy Women’s Program’s impact on alumnae
Four years after it started, the NBA Academy Women's Program saw 12 alumnae reach the 2022 NCAA Tournament
Elite basketball women’s operations lead at the NBA Monica Rogers’ favorite part of the NBA Academy Women’s Program is watching its alumnae play in the NCAA Tournament.
“Seeing them on the big stage representing themselves, their countries, representing their own journeys, that’s the best part for me,” Rogers told The Next. “It definitely makes everyone in our office happy to see them showcased in this light.”
In 2018, the NBA launched the NBA Academy Women’s Program, a series of basketball development camps for top prospects from outside the United States that are held at the NBA Academy locations (Australia, India, Mexico and Senegal). Participants have also attended other events, including Basketball Without Borders (BWB) Global at NBA All-Star weekend and the NCAA Next Generation Showcase, held at the Final Four.
The events include on-court and skill development but also focus on health and wellness, character development and NCAA eligibility and recruitment education.
Since its launch, the program has impacted more than 250 prospects, with more than 60 of those prospects having an opportunity to play in the United States. This includes 12 players on teams that made this year’s NCAA Tournament.
Rogers believes that the NBA Academy is only scratching the surface of talent identification and player development. She believes that it’s important that women’s basketball continues to grow globally and that continuing to add international talent to the NCAA can only help basketball grow around the world.
“[Bringing global basketball to the NCAA] will be exponential in terms of what it will do for, in turn, the WNBA, the Olympics, FIBA,” Rogers said. “I think this touches so many different realms of women’s basketball that, again, it will be exponential in terms of what it does for the overall development of the sport.”
Moving forward, Rogers hopes that more former participants get to play in the NCAA Tournament.
“[I] would love the program to continue to identify top prospects globally and help them in their basketball journeys,” Rogers said. “And then in five to 10 years … [I] would love for it to be a well-oiled machine where college coaches know the NBA Academy Women’s Program brand and know what we’re about.”
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New experiences and coaching styles
Ruby Porter of Adelaide, Australia, who is in her second year at Nebraska, attended the Next Generation Showcase in 2019 and was able to gain experience getting coached by non-Australians. Despite the pressure of playing in front of many college coaches, Porter was able to learn not only how to adapt to different coaching styles, but also how to play both with and against players from around the world.
Similarly, Merissah Russell, a sophomore at Louisville who is from Canada and also participated in the Next Generation Showcase in 2019, was able to branch out and meet other players from around the world. “It’s kind of eye-opening to see that there’s different styles of play around the world,” Russell told The Next.
Not only were her eyes opened but Russell believes that doors were also opened for her. She was able to attend the Final Four and the 2020 NBA All-Star Game through BWB Global.
UConn sophomore and Canada native Aaliyah Edwards attended the Next Generation Showcase in 2019, which allowed her to see a different side of basketball on an international level. She was able to develop her skills and learn from athletes from around the world who had different skill sets and views of the game.
Preparation for college and the NCAA Tournament
Missouri State junior and Nigeria native Ifunanya Nwachukwu learned about both basketball and different styles of coaching when she attended the NBA Academy Africa Women’s Camp in 2019. She told The Next, “I think those were the things that also helped me and gave me an idea on what college basketball [was] going to look like.”
Russell believes that the experience of coming to the Final Four and being away from home, even for only a week, helped her adjust to being away from home and taking care of herself during her freshman year of college.
When UConn sophomore Nika Mühl attended the Next Generation Showcase in 2019, she was also able to taste being away from her home in Croatia, which helped her adjust when she started at UConn in 2020.
“It was very hard at first, very strange, weird, a lot. I had to adjust to a lot of things,” she told The Next. “But as the time went on, I learned a lot, and NBA Academy definitely helped me prepare for that.”
At the NBA Academy Africa Women’s Camp, Nwachukwu hit a shot to win the tournament held during the camp, and she is still motivated by that moment. It taught her that the game is never over until there’s no time left on the clock, and she reminded herself of that during this year’s NCAA Tournament.
After averaging 2.9 points and 4.5 rebounds heading into the NCAA Tournament, Nwachukwu had 10 points and seven rebounds against Florida State and nine points and a career-high 17 rebounds against Ohio State.
At the Next Generation Showcase, Edwards was the only player on her team who spoke English, which required her to get creative and communicate differently. She found that the language of basketball is universal: With hand gestures and nods, Edwards’ team was able to win games.
“There’s the unspoken language of just basketball that, if you know how to play the game and you’re passionate about the game, you know anything’s possible,” Edwards told The Next. This helps her in the regular season and NCAA Tournament because when crowds are loud, she’s able to focus on her nonverbal communication skills and remain a successful communicator.
Edwards also believes the competitiveness at the Next Generation Showcase helped her be ready and prepared at all times.
“I think that the level of coaches and shooting coaches, defensive coaches, offensive coaches that were there just helping us every day and being able to learn from them really helped [me] to be able to apply that in the NCAA [Tournament],” Edwards said. “You’re going to be exposed to different styles of coaching, and being able to play underneath those different styles is what’s going to help you be successful.”
Entering the Final Four, Edwards is averaging 7.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 1.5 steals per game in the NCAA Tournament.
Gonzaga sophomore and 2022 West Coast Conference Sixth Woman of the Year Yvonne Ejim attended the Next Generation Showcase in 2019. The high level of competitiveness and opportunity to play against players who she might face in college gave her confidence that she could compete at a high level. In two NCAA Tournament games against Nebraska and Louisville this season, Ejim averaged 11.0 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game.
Russell believes the high level of competitiveness at the Next Generation Showcase and watching the Final Four showed her that she could one day get to the Final Four, too, which she accomplished on March 28 when Louisville defeated Michigan.
International opportunities and exposure
Porter understands how special the opportunity she had was.
“What I was given, no one can compare, it is something that—it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” she told The Next. “And I think having those opportunities for young girls from all around the world, it was just unbelievable. I think what they can offer is second to none.”
She added, “That experience and that opportunity that so many young players that are aspiring to play at college and go to a college and do well and get a degree and grow as a female, I think that is really important, and especially for internationals.”
One thing Russell really appreciates about basketball is that everyone brings their individual skills and touch to the game. “Every country, every continent, every city has a different style of play,” she said. “So just being exposed to that is amazing. Learning it’s not just you here in North America, or just in Canada, there’s girls that are your age that are doing [the] exact same thing around the world. And that was pretty eye-opening.”
For Virginia Tech junior Georgia Amoore, participating in the Next Generation Showcase in 2019 allowed her to play in front of coaches who may not have traveled to Australia to see her.
“Without that, I wouldn’t be in the NCAA Tournament, period,” Amoore told The Next. “But I think just being experienced to a different style of play—I feel like every country, every different level has different types of play and different level of play. So just making me aware that that was going to happen and the way I was playing was going to change, that definitely helped.”
Edwards hopes that the NBA Academy Women’s Program continues to inspire athletes from around the world.
“I think you hear a lot about NBA Academy on the guys’ side, but I feel like the women’s side is really making [its] mark and really reaching out to athletes who may not have the opportunities in their home country,” she said.
Mühl hopes that in the future she will get the opportunity to talk about and bring more exposure to the NBA Academy Women’s Program because of the impact it’s had on her. She hopes to one day give back and create an alumnae community.
She believes that the experience gives participants a lot of opportunities and space to learn, saying, “I think being a part of NBA Academy definitely brings a lot of media exposure, a lot of support, whether it’s financially, whether it’s being able to give some girl an opportunity to travel the world and make relationships with people and just get introduced to new cultures, new ways of playing basketball.”
Edwards is already seeing the growth of the NBA Academy Women’s Program since she participated in 2019.
“Since I’ve been there, more people are knowing about it,” she said. “More people are interested [in] it. And a lot of international athletes who are not as exposed to the collegiate level of basketball or even the NCAA are getting exposed, and that’s great for them and their countries as well.”
Though Ejim came into the program with experience on the U17 Canadian National Team, participating in an NBA Academy Women’s Program event gave her an up-close lesson in playing with players from different countries with different styles of play, instead of against them.
“It really changed kind of a little bit of basketball for me when I went there,” Ejim told The Next.
Porter and Ejim formed a close bond in 2019 that still exists today, even as the two faced off in the first round of the NCAA Tournament this year.
“I love watching [Ejim] play. She’s a great athlete. And it was just fun because I get to watch her play and say it’s one of my friends,” Porter said.
The pair continue to support each other on and off the court, checking in with each other regularly.
“It was awesome to see that—what, two or three years later—I’m still in contact with these girls, I’m still really good friends with them,” Porter said. “And whenever we get to see each other, it’s like nothing’s changed.”
Amoore has maintained her relationship with Russell and Mühl since meeting them three years ago and has enjoyed watching them progress through the NCAA Tournament.
“Right now I’m a bit envious because obviously, my team didn’t make it that far,” Amoore said on March 28. “But it’s a good thing to see. Because we started so long ago—you’re talking about 2019—and we attended the Final Four and now I’m watching these girls have a chance of playing in that same experience that we watched together.”
With room to grow, the NBA Academy Women’s Program has left an impact on its alumnae so far, giving them new skills, new perspectives and lasting friendships. Porter’s life, like those of many alumnae, has been forever changed, and she looks forward to seeing what future participants do.
“They gave me an opportunity of a lifetime and I’m forever grateful for it,” she said, “and I can’t wait to see other athletes succeed in the program just as much as I have.”