By Antonis Stroggylakis / email@example.com
Jakarta, Indonesia – Canada guard Lu Dort was doing some individual workout after his team’s practice ahead of the FIBA World Cup game against Brazil. Every time he was attacking the basket, he was finding a giant in Canada assistant coach Boniface N’Dong blocking his way.
N’Dong was acting a bit like Dort’s basketball sparring partner. Guarding him and trying to prevent him from going at the rim, using his enormous wingspan and size to stand in the player’s way. Facing him as an opponent while constantly talking to him and advising him on his moves.
His length and the way he uses his body provide a challenge for the Canada guys to shoot over him, even if his own playing days have been over for a decade now. He’s very active. Not making it easy for Dort.
“He’s physically being here with us,” Canada big man and nine-year NBA veteran Dwight Powell told Eurohoops. “Physically showing you the things that are needed to be done. Playing with us, in a way. He’s been such a valuable asset for us.”
N’Dong, a Player Development coach with the Denver Nuggets, was an interesting addition to the staff of the Canadian national team this summer. Now an NBA champion, he was invited to join the new and more ambitious than-ever Canada Basketball project by newly appointed head coach Jordi Fernandez.
The two of them have been well-acquainted after working together at the Nuggets. Fernandez was an assistant coach in Denver from 2016 to 2022 while N’Dong was hired by the club in 2019.
(Photo courtesy of Canada Basketball / Muad Issa)
“It all started because Canada head coach Jordi Fernandez and I were working together at the Denver Nuggets,” N’Dong said to Eurohoops. “When he got the job he thought about me. I’m very happy and really satisfied so far with the process, everything we’ve been doing and how things are working out.”
A former EuroLeague champion as player of Barcelona in 2010, N’Dong spent almost his entire career in Europe, mostly in Spain. Out of the Blauagrana, he was a member of fellow ACB club Unicaja Malaga, while also having stints in France with JDA Dijon and in Turkey with powerhouse Galatasaray.
Apart from the coaching experience he’s been accumulating with the Nuggets, N’Dong carries a multifaceted expertise of different schools of international basketball he gathered by spending 13 years playing in Europe. A knowledge he now passes on to the players of the Canadian team.
“That’s the reason why I brought him,” Fernandez, also associate head coach with the Sacramento Kings, said to Eurohoops. “And of course because I’ve worked with him for years at the Nuggets. I know he’s a great person and a really good coach. And I know he’s done it as a player. With the national team and in the EuroLeague. I needed somebody who’s played in that level. Because that gives me confidence, same like having coach David Blatt here. Surrounding myself with people who have FIBA experience it’s important for me.”
That’s why we brought the best,” Fernandez added.
(Photo courtesy of Canada Basketball / Muad Issa)
N’Dong is too humble to consider himself as such. “I’m just a piece of the puzzle,” he said, smiling. While the Senegalese coach prefers to downplay his significant role on the team, Canada players think highly of him and his lessons.
“He’s been huge,” Powell said, obviously talking about far more than N’ Dong being 7″0′. “There are a lot of things you can watch on film about the differences between international basketball and the NBA and a lot of things you can learn from watching the film. But, when you have a guy who knows what’s going on, who has experience and has played at a high level, and knows the tricks of the trade, physically showing you the things that are needed to be done and how to do them, in practice and on your body… that’s a huge difference.”
It’s been 23 years since Canada last played in the Olympic Games and 29 since they last made at least the quarterfinals of the World Championship. In 2020, the team tasted a bitter pill in the Olympic Tournament of Victoria when the Czech Republic beat them in a dramatic Final to grab the ticket to Tokyo.
Canada Basketball have been regrouping ever since and now mean serious business. They are are going all-in this year in the World Cup, first and foremost to secure their place in the 2024 Paris Olympics and then to win a medal.
The team has a dazzling roster that includes Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the NBA’s fourth-top scorer in 2023 and a player who has set the foundations for becoming a Hall of Famer one day. There’s New York Knicks star R.J. Barrett, coming off a second straight strong run with the team, established defensive warrior Dillon Brooks and Kelly Olynyk, a veteran of 10 NBA seasons.
While some of these players have represented Canada before, they never participated in an international competition of such magnitude and pressure. They aren’t familiar with the different kind of physicality and increased level of contact that characterizes international basketball. There’s also the smaller court size to adapt to, far less leniency in traveling violations and some other rules that might prove to be tricky to get used to.
“The NBA game is very different than here of course,” N’ Dong commented. “In the NBA you have a lot more space so you can attack. Here you have to be patient. Here it’s you that you have to create the space to work by moving the ball side to side, pass a lot. Playing a bit more team basketball than in the NBA. The messages is being sent, it has been going well, they have received it pretty well and they understand it perfectly as you’ve seen by the results.”
“Especially defensively, talking covering routes and space some of the little things that you don’t really necessarily see on the film we don’t do really do exactly the same type of things in the NBA,” Powell mentioned. “He’s been doing a great job walking us through these.”
NBA players, especially Americans, who take the route across the pond to hoop in Europe find themselves in a place where they must quickly adjust to a completely new basketball environment.
There are all sorts of opinions regarding what aspect of the international basketball can become a pain to adapt to. But many players – especially guards – admit that the single, most challenging difference for them is that no defensive three-second violation exists in FIBA Basketball.
A guy like three-time DPOY Rudy Gobert just has to leave his spot inside the paint in the NBA, otherwise his team will lose possession of the ball. In international basketball, if it fits a team’s defensive plan, a big man can just park under the basket and play the role of a “scarecrow,” frightening away opponents and being locked and loaded to swat away the attempts of anyone who comes near them.
N’ Dong agrees that this is among the most complex differences between the NBA and FIBA basketball and explained how he instructs players to navigate through it.
“It’s among the things that we’ve been just kind of bringing in every day in any way we could,” N’Dong said. “When all you are life you are taught to think about something a certain way, it becomes automatic. And then you have someone telling you, ‘Hey this doesn’t exist anymore’ when it comes to a specific competition, like the World Cup. It’s not easy. It’s just about keep repeating, keep showing them several clips on that matter. In regards to the three-second defensive violation rule, it’s simple: ‘Hey, you can be there all the time now’. That’s why on offense the rim is not as open” as they are used to finding in the NBA.”
“It’s a a day-to-day procedure,” N’ Dong added. “A matter of showing them the right clips and talking to them. Again, as you can see, so far they have been understanding and implementing everything great.”
The Canadian team includes several NBA players who are stars in their own right, on and off the court. When they appear in Indonesia Arena, fans treat them like Hollywood.
The respect and admiration that N’Dong already had for these guys as players is nothing compared to how much he’s come to appreciate them when he met them and actually discovered what kind of people they are.
“Incredible humans,” N’Dong said on the players who compile Canada’s roster. “It’s funny. I always say that until you know the person, you don’t know who it is. Even for me being in the NBA… you don’t really have this kind of relationship with them, so you see the star. Right now, I’m seeing and knowing the human being in them. To be honest, I’m grateful to be in a place like this. These people have star power but that’s not what you see in their attitude. They are very humble. They are really bought into the system that we’re trying to build. They are great humans, great people in any way you look at it.
N’Dong still remembers the days he spent in Europe, especially as a player in Barcelona. He was an important member of the squad that won the EuroLeague in 2010 and he’s still in contact with some of his former teammates.
“Of course it’s Barcelona,” N’Dong said when asked about the European team he has the fondest memories of. “Probably the greatest team I’ve ever been part of. And there are the results we achieved. I’m in touch with people like Juan Carlos Navarro and Pete Mickael who is in USA now. Great memories overall.”
All photos are courtesy of Canada Basketball / Muad Issa