Nigeria coach Mike Brown is leaving no NBA stone unturned to find D'Tigers stars

ByColin Udoh ESPN logo
Friday, December 4, 2020

Golden State Warriors associate coach Mike Brown took charge of the Nigeria national basketball team for the first time this past November, in the first round of the 2021 Afrobasket qualifiers, and got off to a 3 and 0 start.

With no time to scrimmage, and only a handful of practice games before the tournament, Brown's 20-man roster could have been forgiven for squeaking through, maybe even dropping a game.

Instead, they beat South Sudan (led by Brown's former player Luol Deng), Rwanda, and Mali by margins of 20, 21 and 23 respectively, leaving Brown drooling over the heights they can scale in the immediate future.

After leading an essentially second string team to an unbeaten record on his very first bite at the cherry, Brown is feeling bullish enough to contemplate not just a medal for D'Tigers at the Olympic Games, but also becoming a FIBA top five team.

"Our goal is to finish on the podium," Brown told ESPN after completing the third of those wins. "We want to show the world that we can compete with the best of them.

"And I think, with the talent that we have, it's a realistic goal for us."

This constant pivoting now appears to be a theme running through his still-short tenure as Nigeria head coach.

When Brown agreed to coach the Nigeria team in February this year, his brief was only to lead them to the Olympic Games, then still set for mid-2020 before the coronavirus pandemic struck.

A few months later, he was thinking more medium term development for the program, and now, after having worked at close quarters with the team, Brown's sights have evolved and now are set much further down the road than even he can see.

He explained: "We want to be a power house, we want to be mentioned with the best in the world and in other to do that, you need to be sure the players are taken care of and the standards are set at the right level.

"You look at the players in the Nigeria basketball team, it is amazing the number of talents. So, I felt with a little bit of organization, a little bit of structure and a little bit of continuity, we can make this thing very special.

"So, long term, we're striving to get some continuity at a high level, so that we can not only be ranked number one in Africa, but throw that number 23 ranking in the world out the window, and give us a top five ranking year in, year out."

Those ambitions are helped in no small part by the number of players coming through the conveyor belt for Nigeria. During the 2020 NBA Draft, a record number [nine] of players of Nigerian origin were drafted.

Brown has been doing his homework, speaking to each of those players in turn: "As the head coach, I am allowed to talk to the younger Nigerians about playing for the Nigerian national team.

"I can't talk to them about playing for the Golden State Warriors. And so every single one of these drafted guys, I have been talking to since they have been in college. And when they got drafted, I texted them congratulations and a couple of their coaches too.

"It shows how deep the talent pool is. This is just in one draft. And there are other guys in college that I am talking to that will come. This makes me extremely excited.

"I have had some coaches call me and ask if they could help out with the program and I am talking about high level coaches, NBA coaches, high division one college coaches.

"People want to be part of this because they can see the potential, they feel the potential but more importantly, they understand the love of excellence that Nigerians bring to the table in all fields and not just basketball.

"That strive, that passion, the urge to want to be great is a common thread of the Nigerian people.

"And now when you have guys that are talented like this, if I could get them connected, we could take this team to another level and this could be really special for a long time."

Ambitious as this may seem, Brown has a clear idea for how to accomplish these objectives, and it starts with building the foundations, starting from under 16s all the way up to the senior team.

Brown said: "That continuity is extremely important. We want to build a program the right way, we want to have a u16 team, we want to have a u17 team and u18 teams, so these kids can start coming up in the system.

"And when they get to the senior national team, like all these other countries have, it's just like clockwork, they already know what we're running offensively, they already know what we are running defensively, we know them as coaches, they know us."

Speaking to youngsters is all well and good, but one of the reasons many felt Brown was hired was to use his profile to attract and convince established stars like Victor Oladipo or even Bam Adebayo to consider playing ball for Nigeria.

Brown has tried, he says: "We reached out to the representatives to Adebayo and Victor. Bam, he was obviously born in the US and, and he was raised by his mom who's an American citizen, and he didn't really know his dad. And so the connection for him in Nigeria isn't quite there.

"And you know, he's going to play for Team USA, I can't see him not being on that team. And so, there's not much of a chance to get him to come play for Nigeria.

"And then with Vic, it's, you know, it's similar from the standpoint that because I think he's played, maybe in college or coming up, he's played for the US before and from my understanding, at least what his representatives are saying, he wants to try out for Team USA. He wants to play for Team USA.

"But obviously for both those guys, the door is open. if they do want to come in play for the Nigerian National Team, I think obviously they would have a great experience and they would be able to be a part of something new and special for many years to come."

Continuity is not just about the players, but also the coaching staff. Alex Nwora, the man Brown is taking over from, but who remains on the staff, has been extremely helpful in getting him up to speed.

Brown said: "Alex has been here for the last couple of years. And so he knows most of the players extremely well, not just their game on the floor, but even how they are as people, what makes them tick, what makes them go.

"For me to be able to get that type of information from Alex on each individual, about what they can do on the floor to help us out, but how to push. That was priceless.

"Alex is the perfect guy for it because he did a heck of a job when he was the head coach. I'm looking at it is not necessarily, quote unquote, replacing him with being better than him, but just continuing to build on the foundation that he already laid."

In addition to Nwora, Brown has also overhauled Nigeria's coaching staff, bringing in backroom experts from the NBA to help with his detail-focused approach.

Brown says he will be unavailable for the second round of the Afrobasket qualifiers which take place in February, but says he has more than enough quality in the staff he has to get the job done.

He explained: "There are player development coaches on the Warriors staff that will be helping me during the Olympics, as well as Darvin Ham, who's associate head coach in the Milwaukee Bucks and Jordi Fernandez, who is the second assistant for the Denver Nuggets and James Laughlin, Golden State director of video operations.

"So, we got a nice staff, including an analytics coach from the Detroit Pistons, so a lot of different NBA coaches from different staff will help us out."

It is a stacked deck indeed, one which, along with the talent on the floor, should be good to make a run at that podium place in Tokyo next year.

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