NBA Academy Charting New Path for International Prospects

LAS VEGAS -- You’d be hard-pressed to find two high school basketball players who are more different all the way around than Francisco Farabello and Timothy Ighoefe.

The former is a skilled 6’1” point guard who, as the son of former international pro Dani Farabello, grew up around the game and has lived all over the world—from his native Argentina to Brazil, Italy, Spain and Australia. The latter is a raw 6’11” center from Nigeria who didn’t start playing until he was 15, when his friends convinced him to try it out.

They wanted me to play because I was growing tall,” Tim tells CloseUp360 inside the Mandalay Bay Convention Center in Las Vegas in late December.

But at the NBA’s G League Winter Showcase, Tim and Francisco have more in common than most. The two 18-year-olds stand out as much for their play during the NBA Academies Exhibition, on teams populated by prospects from around the world, as for where they’ll play next—namely, in the NCAA.

After Francisco graduates this spring from the NBA Global Academy in Canberra, Australia, he will take his talents to Texas Christian University to play for head coach Jamie Dixon. Tim, meanwhile, will leave the NBA Academy Africa in Saly, Senegal, to play for Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing at Georgetown University.

Those teenagers won’t so much blaze a new trail as help turn an existing one into a paved road. As the NBA works to grow the game of basketball into the world’s most popular sport, Tim and Francisco will be among the first test cases of what impact the league can have on the sport’s future by expanding its efforts in grassroots player development.

NBA Academy at Final Four

Francisco Farabello (No. 17) drives in for a layup at an NBA Academies exhibition game. (NBA Entertainment)

We've left it to other people to develop players,” says Brooks Meek, the NBA’s vice president of basketball operations international and head of elite basketball. “And we really thought this would be an opportunity for us to give back to the international game, and try to help kids with a pathway.”

For all of the routes a young player can take—from spending an extra year in prep school or just working out, to playing professionally overseas or in the G League—the NCAA remains far and away the surest way into the NBA. Since 2006, when the Association changed its rules to require that all entrants be at least one year removed from high school graduation, 79.6 percent of draft picks have been plucked from the college ranks.

“When the NBA Academy recruited me, they told me that probably the best path that I can do is go to college if I want to, of course, play in the NBA,” Francisco says.

None have yet made the leap from the NCAA to the NBA after coming through one of the pro league’s seven academies (three in China, one apiece in Australia, India, Mexico and Senegal), though that’s more a function of time than talent. The league didn’t start contemplating a more proactive role in global youth player development until 2013, and didn’t open its first Academies—in Shandong, Xinjiang and Zhejiang, China—until 2016.

“The focus for us—particularly in targeted countries like China, India and the continent of Africa—was to be more proactive in helping in development,” Brooks says. “That was the direction. And then it was, ‘How do we do that?’”

Timothy Ighoefe shot block NBA Academy

Timothy Igohoefe goes up to block a shot during the NBA Academies Exhibition. (NBA Entertainment)

That train of thought, along with an overall aim to grow the game globally, led Brooks and his colleagues at the league office to study how other major sports handled grassroots development. They visited all the biggest baseball academies in the Dominican Republic, traded notes with soccer clubs in England and Spain, and looked at government-run programs like the Australian Institute of Sport and INSEP, France’s National Institute of Sport.

What they found was that institutions like those are effective for not only getting more kids involved in sports, but also offering a holistic educational experience to prepare them for life beyond competition. After all, not every aspiring athlete who passes through an academy ends up going pro.

“There's a lot of things that can happen after going to school,” Brooks says. “But I think the theory and the philosophy of the Academy is, we want to prepare them to make the best decision possible and support them when they do make that decision.”

For Tim and Francisco, that meant opting to grow their games against other draft-worthy competitors and work toward degrees at American universities.

“As a kid from Africa, we don't get a lot of opportunities here,” Tim says.

Timothy Ighoefe NBA Academy

Timothy (middle) at the NBA Academies Exhibition. (NBA Entertainment)

Tim’s journey began by happenstance. Within weeks of picking up a basketball, he met Godwin Owinje, a fellow Nigerian who had played college ball at Georgetown and went on to become a scout for the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns. Godwin brought Tim to the Giants of Africa camp—run by current Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri—in Lagos, Nigeria.

At that camp, Tim caught the eye of Olumide Oyedeji, a former player for the Seattle SuperSonics and Orlando Magic who had gone on to hold prominent roles in both the Nigeria Basketball Federation and FIBA. Olumide invited him to play on his club team, which traveled to a development camp in Senegal in 2017. There, the towering teenager with an impressive build and intriguing athleticism (but few skills of which to speak) shined in front of Brooks, among others. That display earned him an invite to the local NBA Academy Africa for his junior year of high school in the fall of 2017.

“We sat and talked with him,” Brooks says, “and he wanted to make the decision to go to the Academy versus coming over and maybe going to a prep school or maybe signing as a professional.”

Francisco, on the other hand, was a known quantity in basketball circles before he heard from the NBA. He had competed on Argentina’s youth national teams prior to earning his scholarship to the Global Academy at the Basketball Without Borders Americas camp in the Bahamas in 2017.

Likewise, Francisco had known of the Academy before he agreed to go to Australia. He was (and still is) close friends with Francisco Caffaro, a slender seven-footer who started at the Global Academy in 2016 after being scouted in Argentina’s youth system. The Caffaro family, in turn, had seen how Patricio Garino, a 6’6” Argentine wing, had parlayed a standout performance at Basketball Without Borders in Mexico City into a spot at Montverde Academy, an elite sports-oriented prep school in Florida. While there, he earned a basketball scholarship to George Washington University en route to professional opportunities with the Austin Spurs of the G League and the NBA’s Magic.

Patricio’s success in the States encouraged Caffaro, a relatively raw prospect, to accept his invitation to the Global Academy. And as the Caffaros shared stories of their son’s success, the Farabellos saw a path for their Francisco, who wasn’t inclined to sign a professional contract as a teenager.

“They just called me and asked me if I wanted to be part of the Academy,” Francisco says. “I didn't hesitate in saying yes. I thought that was a unique opportunity to develop myself, so I started that way.”

Less than two years since adding Tim and Francisco to its developmental rolls, the NBA has set up an even deeper “pyramid” of programs to get prospects into its training pipeline well before high school.

At its base is the Jr. NBA, the league’s official grassroots arm, which partners with sports federations and community organizations to get kids “to start bouncing the ball,” as Brooks puts it. According to its website, the Jr. NBA “aims to develop a lifelong passion for the game of basketball in boys and girls ages 6-14 by teaching them the fundamentals of the sport, while instilling core values including teamwork, respect and sportsmanship.”

Those who prove to be inclined toward more specialized training can then enroll in NBA Basketball Schools, which are year-long, tuition-based programs that offer more structured hoops curricula to kids who want to work on their games. That coursework, certified by the National Basketball Coaches Association, consists of four levels of fundamental skill development through which aspiring hoopers must pass before being considered for elite player development.

A basketball-loving child doesn’t have to enroll in the NBA Basketball Schools—which currently operate in India, Turkey, Brazil and Greece—to get a scholarship to one of the seven NBA Academies. But those avenues offer “more programming to get more touch points on kids around the world,” Brooks says. And through those touch points, from annual camps to recurring extracurricular programs, the NBA can get a better grasp on whether someone would be a good fit for the Academy path.

“This program is fluid in the sense that we're always learning what we can do better, what we can pull away from and focus more on,” Brooks says. “So it's not something that we're married to an exact blueprint, but we're solid in fact that we're going to use our NBA family—all the expertise that we have, the NBA brand—and put those to use when we find players and partners that we want to help grow the game with.”

Nor do the Academies aim to funnel all promising players to NCAA Division I schools. The NBA connects its students with experts in both athletics and academics to help them determine the best route on a case-by-case basis.

If an impending graduate doesn’t qualify for the NCAA academically or isn’t ready to compete at that level skill-wise, the Academy can guide them toward junior college. If a kid isn’t inclined toward a more formal education, the program will work with that player and the family to seek out trade school options, in addition to opportunities to play professionally overseas.

NBA Academy Grads in the NCAA

Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua

Previously: Cameroon, NBA Global Academy

Currently: Freshman, Forward, UNLV

NBA Academy at Final Four

Francisco Caffaro

Previously: Argentina, NBA Global Academy

Currently: Redshirt Freshman, Center, University of Virginia

2018 NBA Academy activities in San Antonio, Texas. (Darren Abate for NBA Academy)

Patrick Mwamba

Previously: Democratic Republic of Congo, NBA Academy Africa

Currently: Freshman, Forward, the University of Texas at Arlington

Patrick Mwamba

Karla Martinez

Previously: Mexico, NBA Academies Women’s Program at the NBA Academy Latin America

Currently: Freshman, Guard, University of San Diego

Karla Martinez (1)

(Photos courtesy of NBA Entertainment)

No matter the result, every Academy graduate is eligible to apply for additional scholarship funding from the NBA if they decide to further their education later in life.

“We want to fully develop these kids on and off the court, and provide them support and their families support, so that they maximize their potential with the best and most accurate information possible,” Brooks says.

The hope, in time, is to grow the Academies into “a staple of high school basketball internationally,” Brooks adds. In the meantime, the program will keep a close eye on Tim and Francisco as they prepare for their impending sojourns to Corpus Christi, Texas, and Washington, D.C., respectively.

“I'm really happy,” Tim says. “I just can't wait to get there and get to work.”

Tim and Francisco will bring the Academy’s total of graduates in the NCAA to 10. Caffaro was one of the first four to make that leap, though he’s taking a redshirt year at the University of Virginia after undergoing surgery before the season.

Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua was also in that initial class of NCAA-bound graduates. The 6’8” forward from Cameroon graduated from the Global Academy last spring and enrolled at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. As a freshman, Jonathan averaged 4.1 points and 4.0 rebounds in 15.7 minutes over his first 12 games for the Runnin’ Rebels.

While in Las Vegas for the NBA Academy showcase, Tim and Francisco got a glimpse of their own futures as they watched Jonathan log three points, six rebounds and two steals during UNLV’s 92-90 win over Brigham Young University at T-Mobile Arena.

NBA Academy Jonathan Tchatchoua

Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua (far right) poses with NBA Academy kids after UNLV's win over BYU at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. (NBA Entertainment)

“I was happy because it was like imagining myself being like [him],” Tim says. “It's, like, ‘Okay, this is what you look like in the next couple of months. Just watch.’”

With some luck—and a lot of hard work—Tim and Francisco will be pioneers themselves, perhaps as the first Academy kids to play in the world’s best professional basketball league.

“My dream always was to play in the NBA,” Francisco says, “so I keep chasing my dream.”

 

Josh Martin is the Editorial Director of CloseUp360. He previously covered the NBA for Bleacher Report and USA Today Sports Media Group, and has written for Yahoo! Sports and Complex. He is also the co-host of the Hollywood Hoops podcast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.