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Kenya men's coach Liz Mills ranks BAL contenders and players to watch

Liz Mills, coach of Kenya men's national basketball team, led her side to Afrobasket qualification, and has coached across Africa for the past decade. FIBA

Kenya men's national team coach Liz Mills has spent the better part of the last decade coaching basketball in Africa and has detailed, first-hand knowledge of players and teams featuring in the Basketball Africa League [BAL].

It is knowledge that comes from traversing the continent, working with clubs, varsities, and national teams in Zambia, Namibia, South Africa, Cameroon, Rwanda, and Kenya, both as a coach and as a scout, with her game-changing use of data and analytics.

Before the COVID-19 suspension of the BAL last year, Mills, who had previously worked as a coach with Rwanda's Patriots Basketball Club, was due to take up a position with one of the BAL teams [not the Patriots].

The Australian decided against it in the end, and eventually led Kenya to Afrobasket qualification instead, one of the first instances of a woman leading a men's national team to a major tournament.

Not many have the insight that Mills has into the African game and she offers ESPN a peek into what the BAL might throw up as it continues in Kigali till the Final on May 30.

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0:21

J. Cole scores first points in BAL

J. Cole gets on the board with his first points as a professional basketball player in the Basketball Africa League.

The Real Contenders

1. US Monastir (Tunisia)

How they qualified: Direct qualification as winners of 2018/2019 Tunisian Championnat National A.

Honours:

National League: 6X National league champions, 1x runners up

National Cup: 3x champions, 9x runners up

FIBA Africa Club Championship: 1x Third place

Coach Mills's verdict:

Basically, USM is the Tunisian national team with a few imports. They've got a great core group of players who have played together for a long time.

They are experienced at this level, having been with the national team at Afrobasket and World Cup qualifying and the World Cup, so this kind of stage isn't going to frighten them or stress them out like it will other teams.

They've got a great bench as well. I think for BAL it's all about the local players. Everybody has great imports but how good are your local players? No one has this kind of group of local players like USM does.

They are led -- in my opinion -- by the best point guard in Africa in Omar Abada and veteran experience in Makrem Ben Romdhane and Mourad El Mabrouk. Very experienced veterans and all three of them start for the Tunisian national team. I see them going all the way to the Final.

Mills's player to watch:

Omar Abada, without doubt the best point guard in Africa. Great on-court leader, great decision maker, can score and defend. Highly efficient.

2. Petro de Luanda (Angola)

How they qualified: Direct qualification as winners of the 2018/2019 Angolan Basketball League.

Honours:

National League: 14x winners, 7x runners up

National Cup: 12x winners, 5x runners up

FIBA Africa Club Championship: 2x winners, 6x runners up

Coach Mills's verdict:

Petro, led by Carlos Morais and Leonel Paolo, are very experienced. They've been to the finals multiple times and they know what it takes to get there.

They've also got a great group of young guys, Childe Dundao is their point guard and they have a young power forward who really showed what he had in the World Cup qualifiers.

Coach Jose Neto from Brazil is also a very experienced coach at an international level, and this isn't his first time in Africa, coaching Angola for the World Cup qualifiers.

So, this is another veteran team, lots of experience and I think, you know, under the big lights, these guys aren't going to crack on to the pressure. For me, it's USM vs Petro in the final, I'd be shocked if it wasn't that.

Mills's player to watch:

Carlos Morais. He is at the pinnacle of African basketball. Morias can do everything on the court and does whatever his team needs him to do and he has blossomed into a great leader. One of the most experienced players in Africa. A real African basketball OG.

3. Zamalek (Egypt)

How they qualified: Direct qualification as winners of the 2018/2019 Egyptian Super League.

Honours:

Egyptian Republic Championship: 2x champions

Egyptian Super League: 14x champions

National Cup: 13x winners

Egyptian Super Cup: 3x winners

FIBA Africa Club Championship: 1x champions, 3x runners up

Coach Mills's verdict:

Zamalek, led by Egyptian national team players Anas Osama Mahmoud and Meshaal Mostafa, are a real threat and after watching the scrimmages I think they might just sneak into the Final ahead of Petro, but that is a big if.

These two are going to protect the paint, block shots, get big rebounds on the offensive end, pullback dunks, post moves. These guys are a dynamic duo.

Then they've got this young point guard, Mohab Yasser, who's only 18 years old, but he's the next upcoming Egyptian star.

The thing for me with this team is their lack of experience at this level. They're more on the young side with not a lot of veterans in their team other than their imports. So, I think that could end up hurting them.

Mills's player to watch:

Anas Osama Mahmoud. Great defender, locks down the paint, great in transition and a versatile scorer.

The Challengers

AS Sale (Morocco)

How they qualified: Via direct qualification as winners of the 2018/2019 Division Excellence in Morocco.

Honours:

National League: 7x winners, 4x runners up

National Cup: 11x Winners, 1x runners up

FIBA Africa Basketball Championships: 1x champions, 1x runners up

Coach Mills's verdict:

AS Sale could make it to the final four based purely on experience... Abderrahim Najah, Soufiane Kourdou, Zakaria El Masbahi, Yassine El Mahsini have played together for the last two years. They came second in the African Basketball League [the precursor to the BAL] in 2019, losing to Augusto in the final.

They've got some okay imports, they're not amazing. I think that the fact that the league in Morocco hasn't been playing the last two years and only recently got back up and running, that's going to hurt them.

They don't have a lot of game experience coming into this. But they've got enough veteran experience to guide them through the first round and possibly into the semifinals at the most.

Their coach Said El Bouzidi is very experienced, had coached in Tunisia last year. He knows those players very well. He's coached in Africa for a long time so hopefully that is an advantage for them.

Mills's player to watch:

Their point guard, Yassine El Mahsini. He is a defensive point guard, leads the team's defense, gets a lot of steals, rebounds and deflections. He is great in transitions, can shoot the three, can break down his opponent one and one to get to the basket. Very versatile, exciting player to watch.

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0:25

Prince Ebeh makes massive dunk in BAL opener

Prince Ebeh charges through the Rivers Hoopers' defense to slam the Patriots into the lead.

Potential for a shock

AS POLICE (Mali)

How they qualified: Via BAL qualifying playoffs, finishing third in the Western Division.

Honours:

Ligue 1: 3x champions, 2x runners up

Malian Cup: 4x champions, 2x runners up

Coach Mills's verdict:

For my dark horse, I would say AS Police. They're just physically imposing. They can grind out wins.

They've been able to play in their domestic league, so that's an advantage for them. And they've got some Malian internationals, in addition they got some really good imports.

They're led by Ibrahima Haidara, who plays for the national team. He's probably the best small forward on the continent along with Carlos Morais... very versatile, long, can score, can defend. He's probably one of the best two-way players that are going to be in the competition.

A disadvantage for them is that they lack experience at these kinds of competitions and I'm not sure if they'll be able to stand up to the pressure if they do make it through to the semifinals, which is tough already because they're in group B with Patriots, AS Sale and FAP.

And so, you know, when it comes down to the X's and O's, it's going to matter most when you get into semifinals and finals.

Mills's player to watch:

Ibrahima Haidara. One of the best, if not the best small forward in the competition. He is athletic, long, and versatile. Can score, defend and rebounds well. A great asset to have on both ends of the floor.