Deng is rising in a hurry for Duke

World traveler adds ACC to domain as freshman

January 20, 2004|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

DURHAM, N.C. - He was barely in his teens when Luol Deng first started to learn what basketball in the United States was all about. Living in London after his family was forced to leave its native Sudan amid the tragedy and tumult that enveloped the African country, Deng watched the sport from a distance.

The first player Deng paid attention to was Grant Hill. Deng was too young to have seen Hill play for Duke on its back-to-back national championship teams in 1991 and 1992, but he devoured tapes of Hill's exploits with the Detroit Pistons.

Later on, Deng followed the college career of one of his older brothers. Ajou Deng had come to Connecticut in fall 1999 with a lot of hype. But his game never developed and his injury-hampered career with the Huskies eventually unraveled. The older Deng left UConn and finished up quietly at Fairfield.

"To follow in my brother's footsteps made it so much easier for me," Luol Deng, a freshman at Duke, said Saturday at Cameron Indoor Stadium. "He didn't have someone to watch closely and watch what they're doing, but I did."

Deng also heeded his big brother's advice. "What [he] always said was, `Just go out there and have fun,' and that's what I try to do," Deng said.

Deng has watched closely and listened well. The hype that followed the younger Deng here from Blair Academy in New Jersey has proved to be justified by his performance with the now top-ranked Blue Devils.

Going into tomorrow's game against Maryland in College Park, Deng has given Duke a dimension it has lacked the past couple of seasons - a player who is just as dangerous inside as outside, a player who is just as adept at making his teammates look good as he is himself.

A starter in 13 of his first 15 games, Deng is second behind J.J. Redick in scoring (14.2), second behind Shelden Williams in rebounding (6.1) and second behind Chris Duhon in assists (2.0). He leads all Atlantic Coast Conference freshmen in scoring, rebounding, blocked shots (1.2) and field-goal percentage (.469).

"He kind of had problems early on because he was trying to fit in," Duhon said. "With his skill level, he's not the type of player that should fit in. He should play his game and his game fits in for us. When he's being aggressive, that fits our style of play. It took awhile for him to come out of his shell."

Transformed by Hill

To watch Deng, it's not surprising to learn his favorite player growing up was Hill.

"It's amazing how many hours of Grant Hill highlights I've watched," Deng recalled. "I looked at him as a big guy who could dribble."

Given his affection for Hill's game, it shouldn't be a shock Deng wound up at Duke. Though Virginia, Indiana and Missouri also made a serious run at Deng, they really never had a chance. The Duke coaches did their homework and made their own comparisons between Deng and Hill.

"The coaches saw that in me," said Deng, who at 6 feet 8 and 220 pounds is about the same size as Hill. "When coaches say that about you and you never even said that Grant Hill is your favorite player, all of a sudden it's like, `This guy did coach Grant Hill and that's who I want to be like, so why not go to Duke?'"

A star on England's junior national team, Deng has been considered something of a wunderkind ever since he showed up at Blair Academy as a 14-year-old.

Asked to recall his first impressions of Deng, Blair Academy coach Joe Montegna said last week: "Beyond anything I had ever seen in my life for a kid that age. I knew [Duke coach] Mike Krzyzewski and [Arizona's] Lute Olson and you name them would be through pretty soon. You only had to see him for about five minutes."

Montegna, a former Division I assistant at Boston University and Lehigh, said Deng was a basketball savant.

"He got to see college basketball for the first time, he'd watch some guy at Kentucky make a move and come into my living room five minutes later and say, `I can do that tomorrow.' And he just could," Montegna said. "He's just one of these guys who's incredibly gifted and aware of his abilities."

Deng might have had an advantage over some of his American counterparts - he had never played in the schoolyard.

"The one thing that was most impressive about him, physically he wasn't there yet, but there was nothing extraneous in the game," said respected New York talent evaluator Tom Konchalski. "It was all for result, not for effect. He was much more purposeful about the game. He probably had no bad habits to unlearn."

Deng also was unfazed by the commotion he was causing. When former North Carolina coach Matt Doherty showed up to watch a practice, Deng asked Doherty for his autograph. Not for himself, but for the younger brother of a team manager who was a big Tar Heels fan.

"He's one of the nicest kids I've ever been around," Montegna said. "I don't think I'll ever have another like him."

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