- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 3, 2004

SAN ANTONIO — Duke’s Luol Deng is just 18, even younger in basketball years. Accordingly, coach Mike Krzyzewski felt the need to bestow numerous gifts, in a manner of speaking, on his gifted freshman.

“I was so excited to coach him that I gave him too many presents,” Krzyzewski said last week, “and he didn’t even know what to play with. Now he knows. … He’s become more instinctive.”

Said Deng: “I think at the beginning of the season, I tried to rush into success.”

Success finally has arrived for Deng, and not all that much later than what he expected. The 6-foot-8, 220-pound forward from the Sudan via Egypt via London via a New Jersey prep school is Duke’s leading scorer in the postseason, which includes the ACC tournament. He probably is the Blue Devils’ most complete player.

“I was kind of competing in a wrong way instead of just reading the plays out there,” he said of his early-season adjustment. “I’m the kind of player who, even if the play is not for me, I’m able to score.”

After collecting 37 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists in wins over Illinois and Xavier, Deng was named the most outstanding player of the Atlanta regional. He is just one of two players to rank in the top 10 in the ACC in scoring, rebounding, field goal percentage and blocks.

Asked if he still feels like a freshman, he replied, “Not any more. I haven’t felt like a freshman for awhile.”

Deng is uncommonly poised, both on and off the court, and Krzyzewski marvels at his work ethic.

“It comes from some of the things I’ve been through,” Deng said. “I’ve seen people doing harder things than what I’m doing.”

Deng has an unorthodox background and has lived an unconventional life. A member of the Dinka tribe, the eighth of nine children, he was born in the Sudan but left when he was 4 because of a political revolution. His father, Aldo, the minister of transportation, spent four months in jail.

The family moved to Egypt and then London in 1993. Luol’s older brothers, one of whom is named Ajou, learned to play basketball from Manute Bol, a fellow Sudanese. Soccer was Luol’s game; his brothers taught him hoops. “I liked basketball,” he said, “but not as much as soccer.”

Ajou later attended Connecticut, which plays Duke tonight in the second national semifinal game, following Oklahoma State-Georgia Tech.

Things didn’t quite work out at UConn for Ajou Deng, who transferred to Fairfield. Injuries got in the way, Luol said. But Ajou nevertheless had a big influence on his brother.

“He didn’t have anybody to talk to the way I talk to him,” Luol said. “I was able to learn from some of the things he went through. He didn’t have someone to do that with. The things he went through, I was able to learn.”

Deng came to the United States at 14 and blossomed at Blair Academy, an exclusive prep school in Blairstown, N.J. Last year many considered him to be the second best high school player in the country, after LeBron James.

One of Deng’s teammates at Blair was Charlie Villanueva, a reserve freshman forward for UConn.

“I wish Charlie all the best,” Deng said. “But I’m not going to let him shoot it if I can block it. He’s my friend but not my teammate.”

Last week in the regional final against Xavier, Duke found itself trailing 30-28 at halftime. Senior Chris Duhon, the Blue Devils’ feisty point guard and floor leader, felt compelled to single out the play and effort of certain individuals. One of them was Deng, who began to cry. Then Deng gave an impassioned speech of his own.

“I think that had a tremendous impact on our team,” Krzyzewski said.

Duke went on to win 66-63 behind Deng’s 19 points.

“He’s very mature for his age,” Duhon said. “We might need to check his birth certificate and make sure that he’s 18, because he’s definitely a man. He’s very competitive. He just wants to be the best. I think that’s something special for him, being a freshman.”

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