More than ever, BYU basketball will feature a strong African influence this season.

The Cougars are set to have three players from the continent of Africa on their roster in 2021-22: junior Gideon George, who averaged 5.4 points and 3.5 rebounds last season, and hails from Nigeria; freshman forward Fousseyni Traore, who’s from Mali in West Africa; and 6-foot-11 freshman center Atiki Ally Atiki, a native of Tanzania. 

As BYU assistant coach Chris Burgess explains, the staff wasn’t necessarily looking to add players from Africa. It just happened naturally.

“We’re always trying to find guys that fit us. Our staff likes length and athleticism. So when these guys present themselves, we start recruiting them,” he said. “We’ve cultivated these relationships with them where they like talking to us and being around us. I wouldn’t say we’re targeting that part of the world. It’s nothing like that. We just happened to run into it and we’re excited about those three.

“I think what we have to talk about and sell as a program, they’re drawn to it. They like what we’re saying,” he continued. “They know that BYU has a fantastic locker room that’s family. They want to be a part of that.”

Although BYU, which is owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has connections throughout the world, these African players aren’t members of the church. They found themselves on BYU’s radar after they had already arrived in the United States.

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The fact this trio chose BYU says a lot about the way the game of basketball has grown all over the globe. But it also speaks to the type of players coach Mark Pope and his staff are seeking in the recruiting process.  

“BYU is a very special, unique place,” Burgess explained. “The standards our guys live up to and sacrifice for the greater good of the team, we love that. We try to recruit guys that understand that and want to be a part of that. It helps our locker room, it helps our team. We’re chasing those guys. It just so happens that those three guys — Fousse, Atiki, Gideon — understand those things. They understand that living to a certain standard, in some form or fashion, they had that in their personal life and they hold themselves accountable.

“They understand what sacrifice is,” he continued. “These guys have left their home country to come to America to play basketball. They understand giving up their own needs and desires for the well-being of their team and teammates for that special locker room. They understand that there’s something bigger out there than themselves.

“We look for those type of guys — whether they’re African or American, it doesn’t matter to us. We’re just trying to find those guys because that’s what makes a special locker room. That’s what makes guys that are committed to getting better and winning.”

Well-traveled recruiters

BYU assistant basketball coach Chris Burgess poses for photos while at the Marriott Center Annex in Provo on Friday, May 3, 2019. Burgess, who is well-traveled going back to his playing days overseas, is thrilled about the Cougars’ three African basketball players. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Burgess spent more than a decade playing professionally around the world after his collegiate career at Duke and Utah. 

“I didn’t serve an LDS mission but I got to live for 11 years in some fun places all over the world,” he said. “I gained an amazing perspective of what kids have to do to play basketball over there. Soccer dominates over there.” 

In the United States, foreign players learn to appreciate other sports, too. 

During the NFC Championship game last January, assistant coach Cody Fueger, a huge Green Bay Packers fan, invited George to his house to watch the game between the Packers and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  

“Gideon was rooting for (Tampa Bay quarterback) Tom Brady, so I had to have him leave my house after a little while,” Fueger said with a laugh. 

Attitude of gratitude

Fueger loves the attitude these players from Africa bring to the program. They’re humble and not entitled.

“These guys are so grateful for everything. They’re so excited to be here every day. That’s the part that makes it so awesome,” he said. “A lot of people that live in the United States are given so much, like shoes — we know what Gideon George is doing. They’re so grateful for everything they’ve got and they want to make the best of every single day. Education is so important to them.” 

George played for two seasons at New Mexico Junior College before transferring to BYU.

George, who recently finished his first season for the Cougars, is traveling to California this weekend to participate in the Nigerian Basketball National Team training camp.

While Nigeria has qualified for the Olympics, it is looking to add the finishing touches to the roster ahead of the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, which begin July 23. 

Traore prepped at Wasatch Academy in Mount Pleasant, Utah, where he averaged 9.2 points and 5.6 rebounds per game. 

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Atiki, who has a 7-foot-2 wingspan, is BYU’s most recent African signing. He moved from Mwanza, Tanzania to Ontario, Canada, in 2018 to complete high school at the London Basketball Academy, where he averaged 19 points and 12 rebounds as a junior.

“Growing up in Tanzania, Atiki will bring to our team a fresh world view and added diversity in our continued pursuit of the best locker room in America,” Pope said of Atiki. “He is humble, hungry and has an overwhelmingly special work ethic that Cougar Nation will fall in love with. He is a gifted athlete with length, athleticism and touch around the rim. He is sure to become a fan favorite and have a major impact on BYU basketball and our entire community for years to come.”

Burgess said Atiki, who chose BYU over Oklahoma and San Diego State, has a lot of room to develop his game. 

“He’s a beautiful kid. It’s cool just to see where he comes from in terms of Tanzania and how he got here, through Canada, through camps, and his journey here to North America with a language barrier.” — Chris Burgess on Atiki Ally Atiki

“He’s a beautiful kid. It’s cool just to see where he comes from in terms of Tanzania and how he got here, through Canada, through camps, and his journey here to North America with a language barrier,” Burgess said. “He’s only played the game since he was 14 or 15 years old. He weighed 175 pounds, at 6-9, when he got here. Now he’s got the body of an NBA player in terms of his size, his length, his reach and things he can do on the court. He is a true five. He’s got great length.”

What are Atiki’s strengths?

“I think he has a beautiful jump hook over his left and right shoulders. It’s amazing what his coaches the past four years have done with him in terms of him being able to play both right and left shoulder,” Burgess said. “He can get a catch in the post and with the help of our staff, he’s going to keep developing his game.

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“He’s going to learn a ton from getting beat up every day by our older guys like Gavin Baxter and Richard Harward. He’s going to learn a lot there. But he’s going to be a kid that doesn’t have an ego. He’s not a five-star, one-and-done kid that’s been given everything that most grassroots basketball players are given. He’s not that type of kid.

“He’s going to come in here and put his head down and work and grind. He’s going to push our guys. He’s going to get beat up and come back, ready for more. I can’t wait to get him out here and get our hands on him to work with him and teach him the game.”

Making adjustments

Meanwhile, Atiki will have to adjust to the game at this level. 

“The pace of the game from high school to college is always an adjustment. He’s had great coaches. We want kids that are going to help BYU but also fit us. He’s going to come here and learn and grow but he’s going to bring something I don’t think BYU hasn’t seen in a long time — which is his size and length and the things he’ll be able to do,” Burgess said. “It might take him a little bit.

“He might come here and the first few games, not get on the floor. And that’s OK. He’s one of those kids that’s just looking to get better and grow as a player. He has a ton of upside. We’re excited about him. Just like Gideon, it’s going to take this kid some time to understand the college pace of the game. We’re excited about him.”

Burgess believes that having these African players on the roster make the BYU basketball program better.

“We hope that we can have 13 guys on scholarship with a locker room full of those guys. And it’s not for everyone,” he said. “Some guys have personal agendas and they don’t fit with us. They have to leave their personal agendas at the door and sacrifice that for the greater good of the team. If you can do that, with coach Pope running the show, special things happen.”