Noelle Quinn’s heart was full as she drove away from the airport. The Seattle Storm head coach had read, heard and learned about Senegal. But until this month, she had never visited the West African country or anywhere else on the continent.
“It’s very surreal to be there,” Quinn said. “But also to be here with a purpose. To help, to serve. I think that’s what I like best about this trip. And it’s a fantastic place.”
Quinn visited Senegal for the fourth NBA Academy Women’s Camp Africa held December 5-8 in Saly. It featured 25 of the top female high school prospects from 11 African countries working on basketball, life and leadership skills with current and former WNBA stars including Quinn, Dallas Wings guard Arike Ogunbowale, Connecticut Sun guard Jasmine Thomas and retiree two-time champion Taj McWilliams-Franklin.
The camp helps increase girls’ access to high-level basketball and seeks to fuel the sport in Africa and increase the WNBA’s footprint on the continent. This month’s camp was the first in Senegal since November 2019 and showcased for potential clients the bridge from their dreams of pro basketball to living it.
They could easily see themselves in two of their coaches this week. Astou Ndiaye of Kaolack, Senegal won the 2003 WNBA title with the Detroit Shock. Born in Bamako, Mali, Hamchétou Maïga-Ba won the title in 2005 with the Sacramento Monarchs. They could also be directly related to Ogunbowale, whose father, Gregory, grew up in Lagos and immigrated from Nigeria.
Ogunbowale’s family visited Africa before she was born and since the 2021 All-Star MVP was on a break from playing abroad, joining the camp was a “no-brainer”.
“It’s special for them [the players],” Ogunbowale told Yahoo Sports. “Of course they watch the WNBA. They know a lot of the players there are American. But seeing someone like me who has ties to Nigeria and Africa is where they come from and it on the big stage, they think they can do it too, it looks more realistic when it’s more achievable.”
The players came from Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Egypt, Madagascar, Mali, Morocco, Mozambique, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Tunisia. NBA Africa’s staff has a scouting department with “great connections in every country on the continent” that identifies prospects for the camp, Monica Rogers, head of NBA International’s Elite Basketball Women’s Operation, told Yahoo Sports.
It was the first camp in Africa for Rogers, who took the job in June 2021, a few years after the NBA launched its women’s program in March 2018. She won three championships with the Minnesota Lynx and played her last WNBA season in 2016 with the Storm alongside Quinn.
“The African continent has a lot of talent in basketball and we feel it is the mission of the NBA Academy program to help develop that talent,” said Rogers. “Anytime you create a development opportunity for whoever that may be, wherever that may be, it’s beneficial.”
Quinn said it’s important for the young players to be able to “attach a dream to a person”. After opening ceremonies where players can ask questions and share why they’re at camp and what they’re excited about, they’ll get to work with drills, instructions, life and leadership skills, and most importantly, feedback from the people who made it.
“This is what matters,” Quinn told Yahoo Sports. “Making a dream come true because we were here and had the chance to touch them personally. It’s different to see it on TV or read about it, but to have real players [and] coaches who have walked the path these young women want to walk, it is deeper.”
The select number of players in the camp create a web of further development in Africa through lessons on and off the field. The belief that they can make it in the world of basketball, whether playing or otherwise, permeates their social circles. Just like the exercises, skills and tips they have learned and can take with them to their own coaches, teammates and families.
“There’s a lot of raw talent here,” said Ogunbowale. “This hasn’t been around very long so more of this kind of thing where they can learn from the professionals and be in that space they can easily develop. The talent is there and it just needs more attention, especially with things like this.”
Since 2018, more than 35 NBA Academy Women’s Camp participants have committed to or attended NCAA Division I schools, according to the WNBA. They include UConn stars Nika Mühl (Croatia) and Aaliyah Edwards (Canada), South Carolina forward Kamilla Cardoso (Brazil) and Virginia Tech guard Georgia Amoore (Australia). Three have signed professional contracts, including Han Xu, the first Academy athlete to be drafted into the NBA or WNBA when the New York Liberty took her to No. 14 in 2019.
Eight former Africa camp participants have gone on to U.S. universities, the WNBA said. Egypt’s Jana Elalfy, whose father coaches the country’s women’s national team, is committed to playing at UConn next fall. And more of the newest group will likely follow that path. Rogers said she then released a survey to see if players are interested and if (which is often the case, Rogers said) connections are being used to make it happen. Some players are invited to camps on American soil, such as the inaugural Women’s NBA Academy Games to be held in Atlanta in July.
Quinn said the bigger goal was to give back, teach and learn from the legends in the same gym. As a WNBA coach, she also becomes a connective tissue for African talent playing in the US. She has now seen young athletes early and with her own eyes, and in turn can provide first-hand reporting to college coaches on what a player will bring. Having been there also makes it easier to stay invested throughout their career and into a potential WNBA draw night.
“Hopefully will in the future [it will] bridge this gap where WNBA coaches [and] players come consistently and gain knowledge,” said Quinn.
Ogunbowale and Quinn each said they were impressed with the talent, noting that the energy level, focus, passion and camaraderie were all high. On trips with the camp, they have been able to catch a glimpse of Africa, but each had to leave immediately afterwards. Ogunbowale said that if her schedule allows, she would definitely go back for a camp.
Quinn guaranteed it won’t be her last visit to Africa, calling the week “life-changing” and an honor to be involved.
“What better place,” she said, “to give back to the game than a place like Africa where people who look like me play.”