Real Madrid is well known in Senegal, though that's mainly because of the Spanish club's soccer team. But 18-year-old Wally Niang is doing his best to make the people of Dakar take notice of Real Madrid's storied basketball team as well.
Niang is spending his second full season with Los Blancos and the big man has already experienced a fair share of success. The Dakar native helped Real Madrid to the Spanish U19 national championship in early May and then Niang dominated at the 2014 Nike International Junior Tournament at the Turkish Airlines Euroleague Final Four.
Niang was selected on the NIJT All-Tournament Team as he averaged 13.0 points, 11 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game while shooting 56 percent from the field and 86 percent from the free throw line.
"It was like a dream for me to play in this tournament," said Niang, who was spotted by Real Madrid scouts in the Senegalese capital in 2012 and joined the club in September 2012. "Practice by practice, I realized that I was able to play at this level."
Niang guided Real Madrid to the NIJT championship game with an undefeated record in the group stage, but Los Blancos were unable to win the club's first NIJT title, losing 55-42 to Crvena Zvezda Telekom Belgrade.
"We tried really hard to win it but in the end we couldn't get it done. But I am so proud to be in this team and play with these teammates. And to be part of Real Madrid," said Niang, who was one of the few effective Madrid players against Crvena Zvezda with 19 points and 12 rebounds.
Despite being understandably somber in a post-game interview after the loss, Niang wore his emotions on his sleeve throughout the tournament. And he really took the loss hard, breaking into tears and having to be consoled by his teammates afterwards.
Niang's road to the All-Tournament Team from Dakar was a long one.
"At the very beginning of course, I wasn't able to speak Spanish so it was very difficult. But I told myself that it would be a huge change in my life so I have to adapt to the new country, the new culture and the new team. I'm going to do my best to do it," Niang said in solid Spanish.
Niang said his teammates and the club's management really helped him make the adjustment go as smoothly as possible. He was also slowed by an injury last year that cost him a chance to play for his national team at the 2013 FIBA U19 World Championship.
"I was not in the best form going into this year, but I worked very, very hard this year to avoid the same situation that happened last year. And that has helped me have success. And I feel much more comfortable. And I'm quite happy in Madrid."
Niang has really made strides in 2014. At the NIJT qualifiers in L'Hospitalet in early January, the big man averaged 7.2 points and 8.2 rebounds. Then at the U19 Spanish championship in early May, Niang carried Real Madrid to the title by averaging 16 points, 11.8 rebounds and 1.5 blocks while shooting 76 percent from two-point range and 74 percent from the free throw line.
In the semifinals against Cajasol, he collected 25 points, 17 rebounds and 3 blocks for an index rating of 47 before going for 19 points, 14 rebounds and 3 blocks in the final win over Unicaja Malaga.
When asked what he has done since the NIJT in L'Hospitalet, Niang said: "I am just playing within the team. And whenever I play as an individual, I give 100 percent of myself because I want to show everybody that I can play very, very hard to demonstrate that I have a future in this sport."
Niang also has his eye on his homeland in Africa, knowing that people are watching what he is doing.
"I know that I can be an example, but an example of effort," he said. "I play how I play because I work a lot beforehand. I know that there are other players from Senegal and I know them and they are good. But I want others to know that if they work hard they can be in a similar situation as me."
Playing for one of the biggest and most successful clubs in the world, that is.