Inside Ibou Badji's Groundbreaking Journey From Senegal to Portland
The Trail Blazers' two-way center made history as the first player from the NBA Academy Africa pipeline to sign an NBA contract.
A lack of size has been the Trail Blazers' biggest roster issue all season. Behind the scenes, they've been working to fix it in future years.
Meet Ibou Badji, the 7-foot-1 20-year-old from Senegal with a nearly 7-foot-9 wingspan who came to Portland shortly into the season on a two-way contract. Badji is as raw a prospect as the organization has ever had—he's only been playing basketball for six years and took an unconventional path to the NBA that began at a league-sanctioned youth academy and passed through lower-level Spanish leagues and the G League before his raw physical talent and upside landed him in Portland on a developmental deal. The Blazers are making a bet that the work they're putting in with him now will pay off as soon as next year.
Badji hasn't played a game yet for the Blazers, and won't this season because of a recent knee surgery, but he's already made history just by being on the roster.
In 2017, the NBA partnered with SEED Academy, a basketball/academic youth program in Saly, Senegal, to launch NBA Academy Africa as a sister program to their initiatives in Australia (NBA Global Academy), Mexico (NBA Academy Latin America), India and (formerly) China. Badji was part of the NBA Academy Africa program's inaugural class, when he was 15 years old and had played basketball for barely a year. And while the Australian and Latin American branches of the league's grassroots development effort have produced three lottery picks in the last two years, nobody from the African program had made an NBA roster until Badji signed his two-way contract with the Blazers in November.
"He's a pioneer," says Franck Traore, the head of basketball operations for NBA Africa, who oversees youth development programs across the continent and coached Badji during his time at the Academy. "Ibou is one of the original Academy guys from the beginning. Even though he's part of the first generation, he was able to make it to the league."
Badji has been on the radar of Blazers assistant general manager Mike Schmitz for nearly as long as he's been playing basketball.