For about a week in June, BYU forward Gideon George tried out for the Nigerian National Team, D’Tigers, in Oakland, California, ahead of the upcoming Summer Olympics.

Team Nigeria, which is coached by Golden State Warriors associate head coach Mike Brown, stunned Team USA in an exhibition last week. While George didn’t end up making Nigeria’s roster for the Summer Olympics, which start July 23 in Tokyo, the chance to try out was another remarkable chapter in his basketball journey. 

“It’s a stepping stone for me to be invited to the camp,” George said. “I was looking at it as an opportunity to make the team.”

Just a few years ago, George and others traveled about eight hours from their village in Minna, Nigeria, to outdoor basketball courts to attend a basketball camp. They slept outside and they didn’t have water.

It was there that George was discovered by Brandon Goble of JUCO Advocate, who helped George eventually sign with New Mexico Junior College. After two seasons there, George joined BYU’s program last summer to play for coach Mark Pope

Going from such humble beginnings to getting a shot at making the Nigerian National Team is an amazing achievement, and George acknowledges he’s received a lot of help along the way. 

“I’m really, really grateful to my coaches and teammates for putting me in the position where I am right now, the coaching staffs at New Mexico (JC) and BYU,” he said. “They’ve really helped me a lot to get better. I’m just grateful for everything.”

‘Long, athletic, energetic’

In 27 games in his first season as a Cougar, George averaged 5.4 points and 3.5 rebounds, while shooting 40.7% from the field and 31.8% from 3-point range.

George scored 13 points and grabbed 15 boards in a win over St. John’s, and in his first start at Portland, he poured in a career-high 19 points, while collecting 13 rebounds, outrebounding the entire Pilots team by one. 

His strong performance this season earned him an invitation to the Nigerian team tryouts.

Before he arrived in Oakland, George didn’t know any of the Nigeria players. Now, he’s formed friendships and bonds with most of them. 

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At the Nigerian team tryouts, Brown held two-a-days, one in the morning that featured a lot of teaching, and scrimmages in the evenings, George said. 

Certainly, it was a learning experience and it gave him confidence knowing that what he’s learning from Pope and his staff at BYU fit in well with what an NBA coach was instructing him to do. 

“I was excited,” George said. “I was like, ‘We’re on the right path of what coach Pope is teaching us.’”

George described the practices as very competitive. 

“It was a great experience because we’ve got an NBA coach,” George said. “I made a lot of friends out there and I was pretty close to everybody.”

During the tryouts, George caught the attention of Brown, who serves as Steve Kerr’s assistant with the Warriors.

Brown said George, and Warith Alatishe, who plays at Oregon State, are prototypical NBA wing players.  

“They are long, athletic and energetic. They do a lot for you on both ends of the floor,” Brown said of George and Alatishe. “Their abilities to get to the rim and finish above the defenses is second to none especially for young men their age, but more importantly, the defense they brought to the table ... their ability to rebound, come up with 50-50 balls at a very high level is commendable.”

Hear D’Tigers roar

George was thrilled to receive the invitation to try out for the Nigerian National Team, which is hoping to compete for a medal at the Tokyo Games. He was one of 49 Nigerians invited, including several that play in the NBA. 

Utah Jazz guard Miye Oni dribbles against Phoenix Suns center Damian Jones during preseason game at Vivint Smart Home Arena.
Utah Jazz guard Miye Oni dribbles against Phoenix Suns center Damian Jones during an NBA preseason game at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020. Oni is among a handful of Nigerian players in the NBA. | Yukai Peng, Deseret News

The D’Tigers’ roster includes Gabe Vincent, Precious Achuiwa and KZ Okpala of the Miami Heat; Josh Okogie of the Minnesota Timberwolves; Chimezie Metu of the Sacramento Kings; and Miye Oni of the Utah Jazz. Jahlil Okafor and Jordan Nwora are also in the Nigerian player pool. 

Last Saturday in a pre-Olympic exhibition game in Las Vegas, Nigeria upset the United States, 90-87, in an epic, historic victory for the African nation. 

The U.S. team boasts NBA stars like Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard, Draymond Green, Bradley Beal and Bam Adebayo. It marked the U.S. team’s first loss ever to a team from Africa. 

On Monday, Nigeria defeated Argentina 94-71 in another exhibition game.

No African nation has ever advanced to the Olympic men’s basketball quarterfinals. From 2000 to 2016, African countries lost 28 straight games to non-African opponents. 

Even before Nigeria’s stunning win last weekend, George was confident that his home country could land a spot on the podium in Tokyo. 

“I feel like Nigeria is starting to take over the world. We have good players, a lot of NBA players,” George said. “They’ll do pretty good in the Olympics. They’ll make it to the next round because we have a good coach.”

Nigeria’s Josh Okogie (20) drives the the basket against United States’ Damian Lillard during an exhibition basketball game Saturday, July 10, 2021, in Las Vegas. | David Becker, Associated Press

The future, including a ‘Miracle’

George is back in Provo now, working out with his BYU teammates in preparation for the 2021-22 season.

How does George evaluate his first campaign with the Cougars? 

“It was a good season. I feel like next season will be much better because it was like a stepping stone,” he said. “I learned a lot about the defensive and offensive parts of the game and what coach Pope and his staff want from me. Going into this next season, I’m confident because I know what the coaches want from me.”

George is optimistic about the upcoming season, in part because of the return of senior guard Alex Barcello

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“With Alex coming back, it’s a big win for us. For me, especially. I’ve played with Alex and I feel like the team chemistry will be better,” he said. “I like having Te’Jon (Lucas). He’s phenomenal at distributing the ball to everybody. I feel like we’re going to be really, really good next season.”

George’s older brother, Samson, played at Pittsburgh from 2017-20. They have a 12-year-old brother that lives in Nigeria named Miracle, who also plays basketball. 

“He wants to come to the United States. That’s his dream. That’s his goal,” George said. “He’s working out all the time and he’s getting better every day.”

Miracle has been inspired by his older brothers as well as other outstanding Nigerian players. 

“Miracle and I have this conversation all the time. I call my parents and I ask them to put him on the phone and we have this conversation,” George said. “I ask him what he’s done that day. I give him some advice. He loves basketball, too. I think he’s going to be better than me and my older brother.”

Looks like the future for basketball players from Nigeria is bright.