“It’s a really exciting time for Egyptian basketball,” said Roy Rana, the head coach of the Egypt national basketball team this week in Abu Dhabi, and he’s not wrong.
As the Pharaohs get set to make their return to World Cup action next week for the first time since 2014, there is a different flavour to this current generation of players and a refreshing approach adopted by Canadian coach Rana and his relatively young squad and support staff.
Since he took over the Egyptian men’s national basketball team at the start of 2022, Rana has done what he does best: focus on building a strong foundation that includes young talent the team can rely on for years to come.
In 2017, Rana led Canada to a historic title at the FIBA Under-19 Basketball World Cup, where they stunned USA in the semi-finals before beating Italy for the trophy.
He has served on the coaching staff at multiple NBA teams, including Utah Jazz, San Antonio Spurs, Atlanta Hawks and Sacramento Kings, and has instilled a new mentality among the Egyptian players over the past 18 months.
“I think he brings discipline. One of the things we say is we put one standard in and no matter who you are, a standard is a standard, and it’s really keeping people in check,” Egypt’s big man Anas Mahmoud told The National on the sidelines of the team’s training camp in Abu Dhabi.
“We do have the talent, but before he showed up we had the tendency to take the easy route and that would just hurt us in the long run. But now people are more disciplined, people are dialled in and mentally tough and I think the mental toughness part is crucial for us.”
Egypt historically relied too much on veterans when it came to forming a national team but this time around, many of the players on the roster are in their early to mid-20s. There's also 18-year-old point guard Karim Hatem El Gizawy who was called up after starring for the Pharaohs in the FIBA Under-19 World Cup in Hungary this summer.
The average age of the squad currently in Abu Dhabi, where they are playing friendly games against Mexico and Lebanon before flying to Manila for the World Cup, is 24.8 years.
The Egyptian players, including Anas Mahmoud and star guard Ehab Amin, believe this approach of incorporating promising youth within the national side will pay off in the future.
“We definitely do (feel this could be a special generation),” said Mahmoud. “I think what really stopped Egypt from going to the World Cup a lot more often than we have been is we never did this. We’ve had a lot of veteran guys who were early 2000s, who played all the way until they were in their 40s, and then that left a big gap of young guys who never got the chance to get a lot of experience with the national team.
“So I think Coach Roy, what he’s trying to do is build that generation. We have a really wide player pool that has actually been invited to all the steps leading to the World Cup. So we got Karim Hatem, we got (Amr) Zahran (21), we got all these guys who are getting exposure at a young age, so that by the time you get to be 23, 24, you actually have participated, you know what international basketball is all about.
Egypt v Lebanon during Basketball Showcase in Abu Dhabi
“And honestly they are giving us a lot of help.”
Rana took the Egypt job because he saw great potential in Egyptian basketball and felt the federation handled itself professionally and was committed to building a long-term project.
After underperforming in the 2021 Fiba AfroBasket competition, crashing out in the round of 16 and placing 11th overall, the arrival of Rana helped the Pharaohs recover their form and they qualified for the World Cup with two games to spare. Rana has warned however not to expect too much too soon as Egypt get ready to tackle physical teams like Lithuania, Mexico and Montenegro in their World Cup pool in Manila.
“I think we have to be careful of not creating huge expectations early, this is going to be a very gradual build and what we’re trying to do is build a sustainable program, a program that could win for a long time,” said Rana.
Along with a youthful flair, Egypt’s side features multiple players with US college basketball experience under their belt. Mahmoud played for Louisville under Rick Pitino, Amin played for Texas A&M and Oregon, Assem Marei played for Minnesota State and is now at Changwon LG Sakers in the Korean Basketball League, Omar El Sheikh is currently at Arkansas State and recent recruit Adam Moussa just committed to Tarleton.
The US-based Moussa was a late addition to the team having just received his Egyptian passport a couple of days ago; as was the case with Patrick Yousef Gardner, who is coming off a decent showing for Miami Heat in the Summer league and has signed an Exhibit 10 training camp deal with the Brooklyn Nets. Gardner’s mother is Egyptian, which has made way for him gaining citizenship and representing the Pharaohs.
Team captain Amr El Gendy – one of two players on this squad to have competed for Egypt in their last World Cup appearance in 2014 – believes “the gap to the rest of the world is getting smaller” as he notes the progress being made with the national team as well as the Egyptian league.
“When the Egyptian league adopted a playoffs system a few years ago, that made a huge difference,” said El Gendy, who won the Basketball Africa League (BAL) with Al Ahly in May.
“With each season, as attendance figures grew and TV viewership increased, that helped the clubs earn more money.
“A few years ago, the competition was mainly among Gezira Club and Sporting Club; there was a period where the famous clubs with large followings were absent from the scene. But suddenly Ahly, Zamalek and Ittihad boosted their rosters with some big signings, they brought in many players as their budgets grew a bit. When those popular clubs with huge followings did that, they added a different flavour to the league.”
Indeed money has been flowing more than ever in the Egyptian league. Four years ago, Amin signed the biggest contract in Egyptian basketball history with a reported EGP 3 million deal to move from Sporting to Al Ahly. He then renewed last year to stay with the Red Devils for three more seasons.
Coach Rana believes there’s still plenty of room to grow for the domestic competition.
“Obviously the league is strong for the region but there’s lots of potential for it to get stronger, that’s a real opportunity,” said the Canadian. “The league is going to have to be creative and open-minded and look at ways to strengthen all teams, not just the top three or four, and obviously attracting better talent is going to be important.
“So that’s a tremendous opportunity, because it already is one of the best leagues in Africa but it can become a really strong league internationally as well but it’s going to take some creative minds and some willingness to take risks.”
Amin’s own hopes of joining the NBA out of college never materialised but he is optimistic about seeing Egyptians make it to the global stage in the near future.
“It's a process and it starts early and I think we’re getting a little bit better in Egypt now with NBA Academy, and stuff like that, NBA without borders, the camp, Karim (El Gizawy) was just there in South Africa. So I think a lot of that stuff, the NBA investing in Egypt and in Africa as a whole is helping the young guns get better at an early age and find a way for them to get to the States and hopefully to the NBA,” said the 28-year-old.
“And also international coaches like coach Rana, having that NBA experience, and even Kach (Akachi Okugo, who is part of the national team coaching staff) being with a lot of NBA guys, those guys help all the Egyptian players get better and bring a lot of different scope to the game, so I think that’s been really helpful, just hopefully we’ll get one very soon to the NBA.”
Amin says getting to represent Egypt in a World Cup is a dream come true but his ambitions certainly don’t stop there.
“The number one goal and all of our team’s dream is to make it to the Olympics. We’ll have to qualify to the next round and hopefully win the group or go second, whatever happens. But we obviously have to qualify to the next round to at least have a chance to qualify directly to the Olympics,” he explained.
“Our cross is the US and Greece, it’s very tough. But we’ll take it game by game. And our first and most important game is Lithuania (on August 25 in Manila) and we’re going to be thinking about that after the Lebanon and Dominican Republic friendly games.”
Egypt showed great promise in a 77-71 defeat to Mexico in a friendly at NYU Abu Dhabi on Tuesday. And while the path to direct Olympic qualification seems tough, there is a lot to look forward to with coach Rana at the helm and a vibrant group of players eager to take Egypt farther than they’ve ever gone before.