REGENSBURG (David Hein’s Eye on the Future) - Ahmed Khalaf and Spanish basketball club l’iCL Manresa both took a leap of faith - with both hoping for a major payout in the future.
If you’re a young player from a non-traditional basketball country looking to take your game to another level, there are two popular choices.
One is to go to high school or college in the United States. And the other is go to Europe, like the 16-year-old Khalaf has chosen to do.
The talented young Egyptian center signed a long-term deal with Manresa and is taking the Old Continent route to improving his game. Manresa is a mid-level Liga Endesa club who decided they needed to strike early if they wanted to get a player with the potential of Khalaf.
This past summer, Khalaf was three years younger than the rest of the competition at the 2015 FIBA U19 World Championship and the 2.04m big man was outstanding with 8.3 points, 8.4 rebounds and 2.9 blocks a contest.
Khalaf topped off his summer by guiding Egypt back to the 2016 U17 Worlds by averaging 14.8 points, 12.2 rebounds and 5.6 blocks as Egypt won the title at the 2015 FIBA Africa U16 Championship.
"We saw that he has good intuition on rebounding and a possibility to grow as a player,” Manresa’s sport manager Pere Romero said.
“He’s a mature guy who is able to play against players three years older than him but still able to do the same numbers.”
Khalaf definitely has an intriguing skill-set, especially his rebounding and shot blocking instincts. He improved greatly since his first exposure on the world scene at the U17 Worlds in Dubai.
But much of that development has come while working with Egyptian youth national teams coach Branislav Jemc. Khalaf had moved to Cairo club Gezira Sporting Club, but it was time to take things to the next level.
For many other talents from less-strong basketball countries, the choice has been to head to the United States - to either college or high school.
Chilean 1998 born Nicolas Aguirre selected the U.S. school system. Japan’s star 1998-born prospect Rui Hachimura appears set on going stateside as well despite Japan’s national team director Torsten Loibl urging him to go to Europe. Hachimura has already visited among other schools Gonzaga University - a college known for an influx of international players.
While Europe doesn’t have the school-basketball combination of the United States, European basketball provides players more practice time than teams in the United States. And many would argue that players can get better in Europe than in the United States, where colleges have strict regulations about the amount of practice time - not to mention pesky exams and other homework assignments.
By deciding on Spain, Khalaf will undoubtedly face a major adjustment, adapting to an entirely new language, culture and surroundings. Romero and the club want to help the youngster in every way possible to make it easier in the province of Barcelona.
Just as big an adjustment will come on the court as Khalaf will likely start his new basketball chapter in Manresa’s junior team. And he will be facing the best of Spain - and many other countries.
Khalaf will square off against the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid, who both bring in talented prospects from around the world. He will also have to adapt to the speed level and rhythm of the game.
“He has to adapt to all of these things. Then we can see if he can develop at this level. But we think he can do it,” Romero said.
The big news is not that Manresa signed a 16-year-old to a long-term contract - not even that the player is from another country.
The Khalaf signing is big because the talented big man is from Egypt and that he decided to go to Europe. Most of the best of Egypt’s previous generations have chosen the United States route with Anas Osama landing at the University of Louisville while Ehab Amin attending Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.
That’s not to say that the United States cannot be a positive. The 23-year-old Assem Marei excelled in three seasons with NCAA II school Minnesota State-Mankato and is playing this season with Lithuanian FIBA Europe Cup team Siauliai.
One thing is certain, the talent and potential are there for Khalaf. Romero and Manresa knew others had seen Khalaf and that they needed to pounce on him now.
Manresa will give Khalaf the things he needs to excel and develop into the player that both hope he turns into. It will solely be up to Khalaf to step up and work hard to get the most out of his talent.
it’s exciting for Egyptian basketball that a team from an established league like the Liga Endesa is ready to take a chance on a player like Khalaf. It gives the next generation of young Egyptians a whole new perspective on the future.