How could Olympic experience help Nigeria’s Heat trio? A look at what’s motivating them – Miami Herald

The Nigerian men’s national basketball team knows its going to have fans back in Africa, but it also hopes to have supporters in South Florida.

That’s in part because there could be three players from the Miami Heat’s season-ending roster representing Nigeria in the Tokyo Olympics. The Heat trio of Precious Achiuwa, KZ Okpala and Gabe Vincent is among the eight active NBA players on Nigeria’s 16-man roster, with the team having to shrink to 12 players for the Tokyo Games that begin July 23.

Heat center Bam Adebayo, who has Nigerian roots, is on Team USA’s 12-man Olympic roster. Achiuwa, Adebayo, Okpala and Vincent are the four Heat players currently on track to compete in Tokyo.

“I don’t even doubt that there will be Heat love,” Vincent said. “I know they’re going to support all their Miami Heat players equally and give us all the support we need moving forward.

“We’ve received love so far already. It’s always amazing, the fans in Miami, how much love and support they give us. So we’re excited and we don’t really want them to choose between us. We want them to support all of us.”

Nigeria, which has already qualified for the Olympics, certainly earned the attention of the basketball world after completing its pre-Olympic exhibition schedule in Las Vegas with a 2-1 record. That includes a shocking upset win over Team USA, the top-ranked team in the world, on Saturday and an impressive 23-point victory over Argentina, the fourth-ranked team in the world, on Monday.

Nigeria’s group of Heat players has already each had their moments, too.

Achiuwa, who is preparing for his second NBA season, recorded 12 points, seven rebounds and three assists in Monday’s win over Argentina. The 21-year-old also flashed his potential as an outside shooter by making two of the four threes he attempted during Nigeria’s three exhibition games, and also produced a viral highlight when he used his left hand to swat away a Kevin Durant dunk attempt on Saturday.

Okpala (6-8 and 215 pounds), who is preparing for his third NBA season, has been used by Nigeria to defend the opponent’s best offensive players. He started Saturday’s win over Team USA on 6-2 guard Damian Lillard and entered in the final minute of the fourth quarter to guard the 6-10 Durant, and also went on to score nine points on 2-of-5 shooting on threes in Monday’s victory over Argentina.

Vincent, who was on a two-way contract with the Heat this past season and will be a free agent this summer, scored a game-high 21 points on 6-of-8 shooting from three-point range in Saturday’s win over Team USA.

All three Heat players were primarily used in starting roles during Nigeria’s three-game exhibition schedule. Okpala did not play in Tuesday’s loss to Australia because of a minor undisclosed injury, but he’s expected to be available for the start of the Olympics.

“[Heat coach Erik Spoelstra] came by practice [last week] and a couple other front office guys have been here for the last three, four days watching practice,” said Nigeria head coach Mike Brown, who is also an assistant coach for the Golden State Warriors. “The feedback that I’ve gotten from them, Spo told me yesterday that this for their players is better than anything else they can be doing in Miami right now. So he was extremely excited after watching us practice and seeing how we’re trying to help develop his guys.”

Vincent, who also represented Nigeria at the 2019 World Cup, is the only one of the three who has previous experience on the international stage.

Achiuwa and Okpala, who both accepted an invite to play for Nigeria shortly after the Heat was swept out of the first round of the playoffs in May, hope the lessons from their first international experience will translate to their NBA careers.

“I think it’s going to translate very well just because being in and out of the rotation, playing five on five is always good for someone like me,” said Okpala, who has played more minutes in the G League (572) than in the NBA (473) during his professional career. “So just getting more comfortable and knowing how to bring it every day.”

Vincent remembers how much his first stint with Nigeria in 2019 helped his game, as he went on to sign a two-way contract with the Heat just a few months later.

“I’m excited for [Achiuwa and Okpala] to experience it for the first time, to see how the game is different, to see how the game is played across the world and just to compete for something bigger than your organization or a city,” said Vincent, who wears “Nnamdi” on the back of his national team jersey because that’s the name he’s known by in Nigeria. “To compete for a country and to have the country’s letters across your chest and the flag flying in foreign territory and singing the national anthem, all of it is meaningful.”

Achiuwa is the only one of the three Heat players representing Nigeria who was born and raised in the African country before he moved to the United States in middle school. Okpala, who grew up in California, was born to Nigerian parents, and Vincent, who also grew up in California, was born to a Nigerian father.

But all three have been to Nigeria. Achiuwa spent his childhood there, Okpala visited twice before his teenage years and Vincent also visited twice, with the last time coming in 2019 as part of training camp for the World Cup.

“I represent my family,” Okpala said. “I was born in America and I’m technically American, but I’m Nigerian-American. I represent my parents, so it’s awesome to go out there and put on the green and white and represent them.”

The Nigeria men’s national basketball team, making its third Olympic appearance this year, has never medaled or even advanced past the group stage in the Olympics. The opportunity to make history is the main source of motivation for Achiuwa, Okpala, Vincent and their teammates.

“That’s one of the first things I was told when I was getting ready to accept the invite, that no African country has ever moved past group play,” Achiuwa said. “… So that’s a big motivation for me. I want to be part of something that’s big, something that has never been done before.”

Vincent added: “It’s in the forefront of our minds. … Definitely doing it for the country, definitely doing it for the continent. It’s amazing to be a part of those firsts and that’s something we want to do to make our people proud.”

Achiuwa, Okpala and Vincent’s time in Las Vegas has been a productive one, and not just because of Nigeria’s two exhibition wins. But also because they were able to come together for meals with Spoelstra and Heat teammate Tyler Herro, who were both in Las Vegas working with the Team USA Select Team.

Heat forward and team captain Udonis Haslem also flew into Las Vegas to spend time with his teammates.

“It‘s amazing how many people from the Heat we have out here representing,” Vincent said.

There’s a chance Achiuwa, Okpala and Vincent could be back in Las Vegas next month to take part in summer league with the Heat. Las Vegas Summer League will take place Aug. 8-17, making it possible that they could play in the Olympics and still be back in time to play summer league games with the Heat if Nigeria does not advance past group play, which concludes Aug. 1.

That’s a scenario Achiuwa, Okpala and Vincent have not ruled out.

“It’s definitely still a possibility,” Vincent said. “That’s something that we’ve talked about. So we’ll see how the summer goes. But I think regardless, I’ll try to get out here and be in Vegas. I think it would be amazing to play with those guys and just be back in the program. I miss Miami, I miss the work we get in out there. It would be amazing to be able to do both. It would be incredible, really. It would be great for our development. We’ll probably just see how things go and try to just be smart about it.”

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Anthony Chiang covers the Miami Heat for the Miami Herald. He attended the University of Florida and was born and raised in Miami.