As the pre-season winds down ahead of the new NBA campaign, ready for tip-off on 17 October, several African players are in need of a bounce-back year.
KweséESPN takes a look at three key players, either coming off subpar seasons or getting ready to take the reins with a new team.
Luol Deng (Los Angeles Lakers Forward)
Coming into the 2016-17 season with a four-year $72 million contract (thanks to the salary cap rise last summer), South Sudan-born Deng would have expected to play a major role alongside fellow free agent acquisition Timofey Mozgov, for the young, 'sorta' rebuilding Lakers.
Little did he expect his season to go as it did. Playing for a first year coach in Luke Walton and coming into a new situation, Deng acknowledged that the message was confusing. What was the team was trying to do (Win games? Just tread water?), what had the team ended up doing (losing and jockeying for a lottery spot), and what was expected of him (leadership for the younger players).
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Deng said about last season: "I understand it better than I did last year. I know how last year went. To me everything was really a big surprise in terms of the losing and playing the young guys instead of the older guys.
"That was a lot of experience. I think this year the message is clearer right now. They're trying to win. I think last year with the losing and everything, I was asking too many questions instead of really just working on my game and focusing on what I could do myself."
The disconnect for Deng led to career lows for him last season. Averaging 7.6 points, 1.3 assists to go with 0.9 steals per game, Deng finished up with the lowest PER of his career (for a full season) at 10.13. Such numbers led to conversations about whether the 32 year old still has anything left in the tank.
After the disappointment of last season, in which the Lakers basically shut Deng and Mozgov down after the All-Star break as the team gave younger players more minutes and readied the franchise for the lottery, the Lakers will expect more from Deng this season, whether on the court or from the bench.
Lakers shutting down Mozgov, Deng makes sense
Tim Legler understands why the Lakers have decided to shut down Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng for the rest of the season with Los Angeles pursuing a top pick in the draft.
Walton mentioned to the LA Times about Deng being, "more vocal this year," and added, "I don't know if it's from a different mind-space. He was brand new last year so a lot of times I think it's tough for a new guy to come in and start telling other people what to do. He's been here for a year now. He's got a relationship with the players. He seems more comfortable."
Deng will likely find himself playing more as a power forward this season as the Lakers and the rest of the league continue the ongoing shift toward smaller, versatile forwards who have an understanding of proper court spacing and the ability to hit three pointers at a respectable clip.
The problem for Deng is that the Lakers have several young players in the mix at the power forward and small forward positions, from Julius Randle and Brandon Ingram, to Larry Nance and the impressive Kyle Kuzma. Deng will have to battle for minutes at both the 4 or 5 position and will need to do the most with the minutes he gets at either forward spot this season, while providing leadership and mentoring to the young Lakers.
Emmanuel Mudiay (Denver Nuggets Guard)
The Nuggets are still in the process of figuring out who their starter at point guard will be. Prior to last season, most would have expected 2015 first round pick Emmanuel Mudiay to be penciled in automatically. Then the 2016 season unfolded and Mudiay didn't show the improvement coach Mike Malone and Denver media and fans had anticipated.
Mudiay averaged 11 points per game to go with 3.9 assists over 25 minutes per game but his 1.76 assist to turnover ratio and 10.95 PER over the course of the season hurt his case for the starting point guard position, and playing time in general.
The Kinshasa, D.R. Congo-born Mudiay started 41 games early on in the season but by the end of January he found himself on the bench after losing his starting spot. Before the end of the season, Mudiay wasn't only fighting for the starting spot with the Nuggets 2016 1st round pick Jamal Murray, but was locked in a battle with veteran Jameer Nelson to be Malone's first choice off the bench.
Heading into the off-season, Mudiay knew he needed to work on controlling his turnovers while getting better at finishing contested shots at the rim, as well as improving his shooting (37.7 field goal percentage last season) in order to keep defenders honest.
Nuggets coach Mike Malone told the Denver Post about Mudiay's off-season: "I'm proud of him, because this was a really big summer for him. You're going into your third year in the NBA and you lost your spot in the rotation, what are you going to do with that? Obviously, he's worked very hard this summer, and it shows."
Mudiay's half-court buzzer-beater wins game
Nuggets point guard Emmanuel Mudiay takes a shot from the half-court logo and hits the game-winning buzzer-beater against the 76ers.
Mudiay put on a great show (22 points, eight rebounds, nine assists and three steals) at the NBA Africa Game in August as he battled with the Indiana Pacers' Victor Oladipo and Boston Celtics' Jaylen Brown for the MVP award. Prior to reporting to training camp, Mudiay also lost 12 pounds as he worked on his conditioning in the summer.
With his third season around the corner, Mudiay has his work cut out for him to show Malone that he can be trusted to run the point from tip off for the Nuggets. So far Mudiay has had mixed results this pre-season, with a good performance in his first start and a couple of suboptimal games to follow up.
Talking to Nuggets Insider about the competition at point guard, Mudiay said: "It's definitely a competition, and it's fun to get out there and try to compete. I love to compete. It doesn't matter what type of situation it is. It's challenged me. It's definitely bringing a good side out of me."
The Nuggets still have justifiable faith in Mudiay as he isn't the first young point guard with turnover and shooting issues (John Wall, Rajon Rondo, and Brandon Jennings come to mind) but Mudiay does need to show more than flashes of brilliance in order to prove he is capable of becoming a quality starting point guard in the league.
Victor Oladipo (Indiana Pacers Guard)
Full time shooting guard and part-time R&B singer, Victor Oladipo finds himself playing for a different team for the third year in a row. In 2015 he was with the Orlando Magic and 2016 with the Oklahoma City Thunder, and now he's at the Pacers.
Oladipo has been a solid pro throughout his four seasons in the league but going into his fifth, the 25-year-old Nigerian-American needs to show continued improvement to get to the next level as a star and lead player on a young and rebuilding Pacers team.
After being traded to Indiana in the off-season, the former Indiana University player told New York radio station Hot 97 about his mentality heading into the season and why he is tired of being "Mr Nice Guy".
"I really don't care anymore. That's just my mentality. I'm not worried about nothing else but dominating and winning basketball games," Oladipo said.
"You have no control over anything and you want to be the nice guy. I'm just tired of being Mr. Nice Guy. I'm ready to make stuff happen. We plan on going after people and I plan on leading the way."
That attitude is probably sweet music to Pacers coach Nate McMillan's ears. Oladipo will need to take the reins of a team without a legitimate first option. Improving on his 15.9 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.6 assists, and below league average 13.62 PER shouldn't be difficult for Oladipo as he will see an increase in usage rate and more time on the ball than he received in Oklahoma City when alongside last season's MVP Russell Westbrook.
Oladipo has additional fuel to motivate him this season as ESPN's annual player rankings saw him pushed back to 78th in the rankings for 2017. Responding to his ranking position during an interview on Sirius XM radio, Oladipo said: "I love it. I love it. There is nothing better than proving people wrong. You guys are just adding fuel to the fire. I am looking forward to the opportunity."
Oladipo will get his opportunity next Wednesday against the Brooklyn Nets as he begins his campaign to show the NBA that he is qualified to be a lead star and first option on an NBA team. If all goes as planned, it won't be far-fetched to see Oladipo become a two-way star and a leader for the Pacers this season.