Basketball Without Borders has helped grow the game, as Dieng can attest
MINNEAPOLIS —Timberwolves general manager Milt Newton remembers the former Gorgui Dieng.
That’d be the lanky Senegalese kid with a wingspan of more than 7 feet who, at one point, didn’t understand the concept of goaltending. Even in college, he couldn’t grasp why his freshman season ended when Louisville fell in the Sweet 16.
The old Gorgui sometimes appeared awkward with a basketball in his hands; after all, he’d rarely picked one up before attending the Sports for Education and Economic Development Academy in Thies, Senegal his first three years of high school. From there, he earned an invite to the 2009 Basketball Without Borders clinic in Johannesburg, South Africa.
It was there that Newton first saw Dieng’s potential. He wasn’t as strong as he is now, nor was he at all familiar with the nuances of basketball that come naturally to American kids who grow up playing the sport in their driveways.
Dieng spent most of his youth kicking a soccer ball around in his hometown of Kebemer. Yet there he was, swatting shots into the bleachers and tearing down rebounds against the other top 59 players in Africa as selected by NBA, FIBA and local basketball federation officials.
"I remember Gorgui just being really raw, being athletic," said Newton, who played college hoops at Kansas before turning to the executive side of the sport. "The one thing I do remember about Gorgui is he just really competed, nonstop, and he wasn’t very polished offensively, but defensively, he got after it and rebounded the ball ferociously."
The clinic, part of the NBA’s vast, David Stern-spurred masterplan to globalize the game, exposed flaws in Dieng’s fledgling skill set.
But it also kickstarted his transformation into an NBA starter.
"It helped a lot," said Dieng, who earned MVP honors at the camp. "It helped me shore up my game, become a better basketball player. I learned a lot of things on and off the court, how to carry myself."
First held in Africa in 2003, Basketball Without Borders invites continents’ top youth players ages 19 and under for a few days of hoops, life-skills seminars and community service projects. The NBA brands it as a "global basketball development and community outreach program that unites young basketball players to promote the sport and encourage positive social change in the areas of education, health, and wellness."
For American coaches and scouts, though, it’s also a hub for international talent.
Entering the 2013-14 season, there were 11 NBA players who previously participated in a Basketball Without Borders Camp. Four more, including Dieng with the 21st overall pick, were drafted last summer.
Several additional athletes have earned major-college scholarships, which Newton maintains is the primary objective for most participants.
"It’s actually more about the grassroots of basketball, because the majority of those kids won’t be pros," said Newton, who’s been involved with the program for eight years. "It’s about getting them good enough to learn the game so that maybe they can get an education from it, maybe come to the states. All the kids that I’ve ever spoken to, when I ask them what they wanna do, they never say ‘I want to play in the NBA.’ They always say ‘I would like to get a college education so I can come back and help my people.’"
That was Dieng’s original goal when he picked up at the age of 19 and moved to West Virginia to play for Huntington Prep. Then came a scholarship from Rick Pitino and, eventually, a national championship with Louisville.
Timberwolves teammate and Cameroon native Luc Richard Mbah a Moute had the same notion when he attended the inaugural African Basketball Without Borders clinic. That helped him land at Montverde Academy, a prep school in Florida.
UCLA signed him to a scholarship, and the Bucks snagged him in the second round of the 2008 NBA Draft.
But the aim is at more than just creating and exposing hidden overseas prospects, Newton says. Seminars that touch on schooling, leadership, character development and taking care of one’s body mesh with the outreach projects completed by participants and guest NBA players in a way that teaches as much as it coaches.
Community endeavors include Habitat for Humanity and basketball-court construction projects.
A prince in his native village of Bia Messe, Cameroon, Mbah a Moute goes back to South Africa for Basketball Without Borders almost every summer. In addition, he has his own three-day camp for the continent’s top 50 players. Five alumni of that clinic are now playing Division I college ball, including Kansas product and projected No. 1 overall pick Joel Embiid.
Newton usually serves as a coach when he attends clinics. The player ambassadors help on the court, but their main duties are accompanying campers out in the community.
That may be the biggest treat for basketball junkies whose best exposure to the NBA comes via staying up late at night to catch games on television.
"It is a lot of fun, because they soak up everything that you say," Newton said. "They can’t wait for the words to come out of your mouth."
Africa is 11.67 million square miles large. But in terms of basketball, it’s a small world — especially when it comes to the Timberwolves.
Newton got to know Mbah a Moute through the pair’s repeated return trips to Basketball Without Borders. Both first came in contact with Dieng at the 2009 rendition.
The initiative isn’t limited to the home landmass of Dikembe Mutombo and Hakeem Olajuwon, though. Minnesota center Ronny Turiaf, a Martinique native with close ties to France, has attended camps in Paris and India and plans to be at one in Chinese Taipei this summer. Last year, Alexey Shved and former Timberwolves forward Andrei Kirilenko worked with kids at a Russian version of the program.
Likewise, Minnesota assistants Terry Porter and Jack Sikma participated in Portugal’s Basketball Without Borders camp this past summer.
Working with gifted athletes to whom hoops don’t come naturally can be both a joy and a challenge, Newton said. Some of the game’s simplest intricacies must be harped upon, but players tend to listen and respond to coaching with less recalcitrance.
"Some people may see that (American kids) are talented, so instead of really teaching them the game, they allow those kids to do whatever they want to do," Newton said. "So when they get to the college level and the pro level and they have to be taught, they’ve never had that constructive criticism, and they find it really hard to take it. That right there itself is a downfall for a lot of our kids. "But for the kids over in Africa, they know how to take constructive criticism, and they see it as that — constructive criticism. They know that you’re trying to help them improve."
That’s certainly been the case with Dieng, by all accounts. After barely playing until the middle of March, he’s responded pristinely to an increased workload in the wake of injuries to Turiaf and Nikola Pekovic.
Now much more coordinated, muscular and confident than he was four years ago, he’s averaged 11.7 points and 11.7 boards per game since the beginning of March.
All season, Mbah a Moute told the big man to "just be patient and work hard. His opportunity will come."
And while Mbah a Moute himself hasn’t played as much as desired since coming over in a trade from Sacramento — 14.8 minutes per game — his relationship with Dieng has paid off.
"He’s helped me out a lot," said Dieng, who speaks fairly good English and speaks four other languages. "Any time I’m down, he just kind of talk to me. Sometimes, practice gets tough. He just came and talked to me, he came to my place and we have dinner and talk."
Coach Rick Adelman also has observed Dieng’s progress — the roots of which can be traced to Johannesburg, a city more than 9,000 miles away.
"He’s a very quick learner," Adelman said. "I think he’s a smart player. He’s got a really good understanding of the game."
Follow Phil Ervin on Twitter