In what has come to be common among most African basketball players, Ugonna Kingsley played football for the majority of his childhood before being seen by a local coach who posed the idea of playing basketball to him. “I was unsure at first when he approached me but I spoke to my mum when I got home and she encouraged me to give it a try,” he says.
The opportunities in basketball in Owerri and Nigeria used to be difficult to envision, Kingsley has spoken on the lack of opportunity to attend camps at the time — which makes his development arc more unique.
Ugonna has been a student-athlete at the NBA Academy Africa for the last three years. It is an elite basketball training centre in Senegal for the top male and female prospects from the African continent. The Academy hosts tryouts for prospective talents once a year. “I was called out to Senegal for tryouts around May or June but ended up practising with the team out there instead,” Kingsley recalls. His daily routine is a gruelling one: up by 6am, work out ‘til 9 am. Classes from 10 am to 4:30 pm and a final workout from 5 pm to 7 pm to end the day. With a group as large as 34, the students usually face and compete against their peers daily before occasionally facing external competition in the form of local teams and other regional NBA academies.
In August 2021 it was announced, via Amateur Athletic Union’sofficial Instagram, that Ugonna would join Team New England, an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) basketball programme that provides opportunities for young athletes trying to take the next step. Highly ranked prospects such as Cole Anthony, Scottie Lewis and Kai Jones have all made their way from the programme to the NBA. Kingsley says the move to Team New England was to gain some exposure around the AAU circuit and compete against other prospects in the country to increase his prospect “stock”.
Following an impressive showing for the team at the Hoop Group’s Future All American Camp, Kingsley received offers from the likes of Georgetown University, Texas Tech University and Clemson University as a prospect for the Class of 2024. “This is supposed to be my senior year, but from what I’ve seen here and from the way they play I feel I need to get myself to that level first before thinking about college,” he says.
On November 23rd, the Nigeria Men’s National Basketball team released a preliminary roster for their FIBA World Cup Qualifiers and to the surprise of most fans, Kingsley was included in the list. “My coaches told me I was called up and I had to ask whether it was the under-17s team at first because I was so surprised”.
The Nigeria Men’s Basketball Team were returning after a disappointing showing earlier in the year at the Olympic Games and later the FIBA Afrobasket tournament, this time they were under new leadership in Head Coach Julius Nwosu and returning team captains Ike Diogu and Ben Uzoh.
“My first time meeting Coach Julius or Ike was when I arrived in Angola, I knew of them of course but I had never spoken to them.” The team was put together rather late and a majority of the players arrived in Angola a day before the first qualifying game against Cape Verde — so little to no practice. “Coach Julius said to me that the game against Cape Verde would have to serve as a practice game for us and I believed him, we had to take that game to learn how each other play because we had never played with one another before.”
The team suffered a narrow loss but Kingsley’s performance off the bench was a positive for the team as he was the youngest player to ever represent the Nigeria Men’s Basketball Team. A narrow win against Mali followed and in their final game of the qualifying window, he was crucial in a blowout win over Uganda. “I was eager to get into the game, Ike set the tone for us and from there we were able to settle into the game.”
On December 30th, Ugonna left the Academy to attend Putnam Science Academy in Putnam,Connecticut. “I learned about the school last summer after participating in the AAU tournament with Team New England.
“The plan has always been the same, working to get to a great Division one college or playing professionally after I finish here.
One NBA player you would compare yourself to? … I am not accepting Giannis as an answer.
“Giannis … but I used to compare myself with KD when I first started, I’ve still got to improve my shot a lot to be at that level but yeah … KD”.
Best player you’ve played with against at the NBA Academy?
Best teammate from the time with the National Team?
“Ike Diogu, not only as a player but from how he was encouraging me throughout the games as a captain of the team”
NBA2K OR FIFA?
Do you have a favourite football team?
“I don’t have a favourite team no more because Messi is no longer at Barcelona”