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Mark Woods caught up with the UK's most gifted prospect earlier this summer. And with his enrollment at Duke University, Luol Deng appears unfazed by the hype over his talents.
6am. Any weekday morning in the school gym at Blair Academy in suburban New Jersey. The sound of the pre-dawn chorus is drowned out by the thud of basketballs banging on the high school’s wooden parquet.
This is Luol Deng’s adaptation of the Breakfast Club, the 18 year old Londoner leading his brat pack through a series of punishing shooting and passing drills at an hour when most teenagers are hugging to the duvet for dear life.
Why? It’s simple.
“The ultimate dream is to reach my goals and to be one of the best players ever,” he states.
“I’ve worked hard. I get up early every day and practice because I want to reach the NBA and be successful. I love basketball and if you love something, it’s not hard to do that.”
It’s not mere teenage bravado. Experts last year rated Deng as the second-best schoolboy player in the United States and a certainty to one day pit his wits and his 6’8” frame among the other king-sized millionaires in the National Basketball Association.
Already called into England’s senior squad, his emigration to the States three years ago honed a raw talent which was sculpted in the well-respected development programme run by the capital’s Brixton Topcats. Yet he could have chosen a completely different path.
“I played football at schoolboy level. I was invited, along with a couple of friends from my team, to go to the England trials. I didn’t go because of basketball. I was coming here and that was the point when I was 14 when I decided to stop football and concentrate on this.”
His dedication sets him apart from his peers. So too his childhood. His father, Aldo, served in the Sudanese parliament and became the country’s Minister of Transportation before his family were forced to fleethe country as political refugees, stopping first in Egypt before re-settling in the UK.
“I don’t remember Sudan and the war,” he admits. Moving around has given him a mature perspective, however.
“How I grew up is different than a lot of children but it was a good experience. At first it was tough but now I realise than instead of looking at it as being difficult, I was lucky. I learned about different cultures which has been really positive for me.
“A lot of people told me I was good enough to come over here but when I first came, I wasn’t so sure. I thought I would have to put a lot of work into it, which I did. But Brixton prepared me really well for what I was coming to face. That summer before I left London, I was really nervous about leaving home and moving to the United States to play basketball. So I really worked at my game a lot."
Basketball runs through the family of nine children. Elder brother Deng plays in the National League here while sibling Ajou is has just finished his studies at Fairfield University.
"He works hard," says Joe Mantegna, Blair's basketball coach. "He's extremely determined."
“My brothers were always pushing me,” Luol reveals. “Whenever I played with them they pushed me harder than anyone else. I think that’s because they could see better than anyone what I could become and that kept me focused.”
It may prove to be his brothers greatest gift. The future from here looks rosy and it will go right through Kryzewskiville.
Over one hundred American colleges attempted to woo the latest Dookie in a fierce bidding war. "They really look after you. But you just have to realise they’re doing this to get you to sign up for their school. You have to keep your head on the same level as everybody else rather than get carried away by the treatment."
But it is Durham, North Carolina, and the quaint cosy environs of Cameron Stadium where he will next showcase his burgeoning skills.
Until, that is, the day when he decides to jump to the level his talent will surely allow - into the NBA. Some scouts would have tabbed him as a lottery pick if he had taken the high school to pro leap, taken by his contemporary.
There were plenty who advocated such a move, who suggested that he should cash in and grab the millions before his teenage years are passed. It is a powerful temptation, given the constant clamour ignited by website reports and agents chatter.
“But I look at it as just that, hype. I’m not where I want to be yet. I don’t think I’m going to stop and let the hype get to me until I get to be as good as I want to be.”
Only the best will do.
Photo: courtesy nbadraft.com
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