|Thursday, July 11
Updated: July 19, 2:48 PM ET
Deng's long journey paying dividends
INDIANAPOLIS -- Luol Deng came to the United States so he could play basketball. Three years later, he's near the top of his class.
At 6-foot-7, 221 pounds, Deng can beat an opponent inside or outside. He rebounds, passes and defends. He is versatile enough to play four positions. Even at the Nike All-America Camp, against some of the nation's top high school players, Deng stands out.
"I really don't know what's going to happen," the native of Sudan said in almost flawless English. "But whatever happens, I'm going to graduate from college because graduating from college is the greatest thing I could do for my aunts."
Deng is different because he's much more than a basketball player.
Sudanese by birth and American by way of Egypt and England, Deng's life has been filled with worldly experiences. He's lived on three continents and speaks three languages -- Arabic, English and his native tribal language -- fluently.
His family left Sudan when he was 6, escaping from a civil war in which young men were forced to fight. They fled to Alexandria, Egypt.
Four years later, the family moved to London and it was there that Deng's athleticism began to show. At 13, he was selected for England's 15-and-under national team in basketball and soccer. A 4-inch growth spurt and his brothers' affinity for basketball helped him choose.
"I learned a lot from my older brother," Deng said of Ajou, who plays Division I basketball at Fairfield after transferring from Connecticut.
Deng left his family and seven of his eight siblings -- he is the second youngest -- in London so he could come to America. Critics claimed he left Europe too soon, but Deng ignored them and went to Blair Academy in Blairstown, N.J., as a 6-5 freshman.
"A lot of people were telling me to wait until I was 15 or 16 because it would give me more time to develop," he said. "But I thought if I came over early, it would get me used to the game. I think that was better."
Initially, though, life was hard.
Deng had only two relatives in America -- his brother and an uncle, who lived in Connecticut.
For Deng, it was an everyday battle. He was homesick and couldn't help but wonder whether, perhaps, he had made a mistake. One month into the school year, Deng went to his coach, Joe Mantegna, to tell him he was leaving.
"I said 'I can't take it any more,"' Deng said. "He said, 'Just give it some time and then if you want to go back, you can.'"
Deng heeded the advice and during the next three years his career took off.
What he found was that his European and African backgrounds were of great benefit in American basketball -- soccer helped improve his footwork and the European basketball coaches stressed fundamentals. Those skills put him ahead of his teammates and his talent took care of the rest.
As a sophomore, he averaged 21 points and 11 rebounds, leading Blair to a 38-8 record and its first New Jersey Maple League Prep League title.
This year, Deng went back to Europe, playing for England's junior team at the European national tournament. Again, he excelled, averaging 33.5 points and being selected MVP.
Deng's junior season then took a strange twist.
As he tried to return to Blair, security officials in London detained him for 21 days because he was traveling with a Sudanese passport.
When he was released, Deng went back to New Jersey and averaged 22 points, 12 rebounds and five assists, completing his transformation from relative unknown to prize recruit.
Now, a lot of colleges want Deng. He has narrowed his list of choices to Duke, Missouri, Texas, Wake Forest, Virginia, George Washington and Fairfield.
Deng's long, arduous, globe-trotting journey has put him at the forefront of American basketball and within reach of a dream -- earning a college degree.
"I've learned a lot," he said. "And I think basketball is really helping me get what I want."