While Jonathan Kuminga was growing up in the Congo, the 2021 NBA Draft candidate had minimal access to American basketball, with the exception of 30-minute sessions (or an hour, if he was lucky this). day) at the local internet cafe where he could upload Kobe Bryant and LeBron James highlights to YouTube.
When the combo forward, who averaged 15.8 points and 7.2 rebounds in the NBA Development League this season, wanted to play basketball in his home country – a sport that has him taken from a war-torn Congo that has been in one form of conflict or another for nearly three decades to the precipice of NBA stardom – there was rarely access to indoor courts or adequate basketball shoes to play. Not to mention the level of training needed for elite basketball talent like him.
Those years in the Congo, and the last five years he has spent playing high school and professional basketball in America since (Kuminga moved to the United States in 2016), made the 18-year-old grateful for the opportunity he earned by being a top-10 prospect in Thursday’s NBA Draft, and determined to ensure he isn’t the last Congolese player to qualify for the league.
âI want to do well. I want to be awesome, âKuminga told The Undefeated last week. “If I get out of it. I want Africans to be like, ‘If he did it, we can do it too.’ “
Until recently, Africa was not a hotbed of basketball talent. Sport comes second behind football on the continent, in part because of the accessibility of the latter. To play fÃºtbol, ââall you need is a ball and almost any surface to play on. Basketball requires not only a ball, but also a court and a basket to play, as well as proper sneakers.
But the selections of the Nigerian center Hakeem Olajuwon (1984), the great South Sudanese man Manute Bol (1985) and the Congolese center Dikembe Mutombo (1991), and the investment on the continent by the NBA at the turn of the century, have opened the floodgates for African talent over the past 20 years, illustrated by the MVP candidacy of Cameroonian Joel Embiid last season.
Kuminga’s parents played basketball, and Kuminga’s older brother, Joel Ntambwe, played three games for Texas Tech last season before leaving the program for personal reasons. Emmanuel Mudiay, who last played in the NBA for the Utah Jazz in the 2019-20 season, is Kuminga’s cousin.
âI have parents who have played basketball my whole life,â Kuminga said. “So basically I got the chance to touch a basketball at an age that I can’t really remember when I first did it.”
Congo has lagged behind other African countries, namely Nigeria, when it comes to uncovering NBA-ready talent. There have been four Congo-born drafted players – Mutombo, Christian Eyenga (2009), Bismack Biyombo (2011) and Mudiay (2015) – along with seven other players, including Atlanta Hawks center Clint Capela (2014), with at least a relative from Congo who have been selected. For comparison, nine players of Nigerian descent were selected in the 2020 draft alone.
While the Milwaukee Bucks and Miami Heat first-round playoffs featured nine players of Nigerian descent, and the Bucks and Phoenix Suns NBA Finals featured players with ties to Nigeria, the Guinea, Senegal and Egypt, a player born in Congo. has appeared in only one playoff series in the past four years (Mudiay). And at the international level, the Congo Men’s National Team has never qualified for the Olympics or the FIBA ââWorld Championships but has participated in the FIBA ââAfroBasket on several occasions, including this summer.
Kuminga, who was born in Goma, located in the western region of Congo near the Rwandan border, said the country was lagging behind due to a lack of basketball infrastructure.
âPeople are playing basketball, but it’s not really big, because we don’t have some people going out there and helping organizations there,â he said. “So a lot of people are not following.”
Even something as simple as having access to basketball shoes is a struggle for young people. Kuminga has spoken in the past of having to play in damaged sneakers throughout his childhood, which resulted in many slips and falls on the outdoor courts.
âYou’re playing games in two weeks, your toes are sticking out of the shoes,â said Kuminga, whose mother tongue is French.
âI will continue to play, but I have no other shoes. It’s going to take me a lot longer to get other shoes, because these are my only shoes that I could use for basketball, and other shoes that I will use to go to the games, to go to the school.
âIf we had a better organization, people who really help, I think we would produce a lot of players. And that’s the thing we’re really trying to focus on …
But if Kuminga were to be selected in the top six in Thursday’s draft (he was to place eighth overall from ESPN NBA Draft analyst Jonathan Givony most recent draft), he would surpass Mudiay (seventh overall, 2015) as the most drafted Congo-born player since Mutombo was selected fourth overall in the 1991 draft by the Denver Nuggets, and become Congo’s second active player in league, join the Charlotte Hornets Biyombo. (Patrick Mutombo, who played in the NBA Development League in the 2009-10 season, is the head coach of the Toronto Raptors G League branch.)
In addition to helping develop basketball in his home country, Kuminga also wants to use his now-enhanced platform as an NBA rookie to speak out against human rights violations in Congo and the United States.
Kuminga was born in a country that was still grappling with the fallout from the genocide in neighboring Rwanda and the Congo’s first war. The Second Congo War, which claimed more than 5 million lives, ended just one year after Kuminga was born in 2002. Civil strife has ravaged the country since then.
While Kuminga never went into details of what he witnessed as a young boy growing up in Congo during this time, last spring he compared the protests following the police murder of George Floyd to the âatrocitiesâ he witnessed in Congo, inspiring him to âstand up against all types of prejudices, discrimination and racism that we still suffer all over the worldâ.
Meanwhile, Kuminga was well aware of which college coaches recruiting him, including those from Duke and Kentucky, spoke about anti-black racism in America. (Kuminga eventually left college completely and played for the G League Ignite, a development team designed specifically for NBA Draft prospects, last season.)
âGrowing up, I had a situation. My parents really tried to help me and provide for me and stay away from that stuff, âKuminga said. “I’m not really talking about that, but like, things that were going on before aren’t right, so it makes people feel bad.” And especially as Africans – not just from the Congo, African children – and all coming to the United States, it’s like the dream has come true.
âEvery time you walk away from this stuff, thank goodness I have. And that’s why we keep working hard. We try to change things in Africa. We try to make Africa great. .
Kuminga hopes his selection on Thursday will lead to more investment and engagement in Congo so that one day there are more Mutombos, Biyombos, Mudiays – and Kumingas – playing in the NBA.
“I want to accomplish so many goals in basketball that one day they will be talking about this kid from Congo,” he said. âAnd then when they talk about this kid from the Congo, it will bring a lot back to the Congo that they want to know who else will be next. What does the Congo need? What kind of help do they need to produce more children like this? That’s what it’s about.