February 16, 2004
DURHAM Luol Deng came to Duke with a reputation as an extremely polished high school recruit with the skills to contribute immediately to the Blue Devils. At 6-8, with long arms, speed, ball-handling ability and a nice shooting touch, Deng has not disappointed. However, the most impressive part of his game has not been his skill, but rather his toughness and willingness to work, which is why he deserves the highest consideration for ACC rookie of the year. With all due respect to Wake Forest point guard Chris Paul, Deng has been the best freshman in the league. On a team that reached the No. 1 ranking and reeled off 18 wins in a row, Deng has been a consistent scorer, rebounder and defender, even as he adjusts to the college game. Luol's playing great basketball,Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. I don't think there's any freshman playing any better on a winning team in the country. Or any harder. For all the aptitude Deng shows with the ball in his hands, he is even better at doing the dirty work. He is, in short, the most skilled garbage man in the ACC. As a rebounder, Deng is relentless. He has a knack for tipping the ball away from opponents in better position in Dennis Rodman-like fashion, until either he or one of his teammates gains control. On defense, Deng is an underrated shotblocker because of the gaudy numbers being put up by teammate Shelden Williams. Deng's leaping ability and timing give pause to any opponent with a mind to venture into the lane. Offensively, Deng has shown that he can do it all shoot the three-pointer, create his own shot and drive to the basket. But during conference play, his most effective strategy has been to roam the baseline, waiting for the opportunity to convert a teammate's pass or get in position for yet another offensive rebound. He's a dynamic player,Blue Devils guard J.J. Redick said of Deng. He can do a ton of things. He's so versatile and gives us a lot of options. Deng's journey to Duke has been so well-chronicled by the local and national media that in a few months it has almost graduated to mythology. A native of Sudan, Deng and his family had to flee the war-ravaged country and live as refugees in Egypt before gaining political asylum in England. Deng was enrolled at a prep school in New Jersey at age 14 and blossomed into the player he is today even as he admittedly missed his family a great deal. His life's adversity has produced a well-mannered young man who acts a lot older than should be expected of a 19-year-old. Deng has made the transition to college seem almost seamless. One of the factors working in his favor is the fact that, even though he is at the forefront for the Blue Devils, Deng is not under any pressure to carry the team. That job is reserved for senior point guard Chris Duhon, junior Daniel Ewing and the five sophomores who gained experience by being thrown into the fire last year. He's become a smarter player, and I definitely think that it's helped him that he hasn't had to necessarily carry the load and have a ton of pressure on him,said Redick, who experienced more than a few growing pains working without a safety net last season. Deng also has received counsel from former Duke star Grant Hill. Deng idolized Hill in high school and paid tribute to him by wearing his jersey No. 33. Hill recently has spent time in Durham, attempting to rehabilitate his injured foot. I'm the only scholarship freshman, but I have so many guys that have been through what I've been through,Deng said. That's why you come to college, to learn. Many Highlights, One Lowlight About the biggest bump in the road for Deng came in mid-February, when a minor controversy erupted over how the player was characterized in an article published by the university's student newspaper. Luol Deng went up strong with his orangutan arms, like he always does,was how the article began. To compare any black person to an ape is to ask for an angry response to a racial stereotype, and that is exactly what the editors of the Duke Chronicle got before issuing a contrite public apology and writing letters of apology to Deng, Krzyzewski and athletic director Joe Alleva. Deng's value to the Blue Devils was never more apparent than during a recent two-week stretch, beginning Jan. 31 with a tight contest at Georgia Tech. Deng scored a career-high 22 points in the victory. Five days later, in the first of two grudge matches, Deng had 17 points and 12 rebounds in Duke's win at North Carolina. Deng was knocked woozy in the second half in a collision with UNC forward David Noel, but he returned to make a key basket and pull down several critical rebounds near the end of regulation and in overtime. Following another 22-point performance against Clemson, Deng again overcame injury this time a bruised tailbone and returned in the second half of the Blue Devils'win against Virginia on Feb. 11. Deng scored nine of his 11 points during the time Duke pulled away, after convincing the team's skeptical medical staff to let him back in the game. As soon as Louie got into the game, he brought energy to the whole place, not just our team, because we hadn't seen him for a long time,Krzyzewski said. I'm not sure if any of us expected to see him. Said Deng: I was supposed to sit out for the rest of the game, but I wanted to be out there on the floor even if I wasn't doing much, just to be with the guys. They just saw how much I wanted to play. Everyone has seen that desire by now, and it should pay off in the form of some postseason hardware. Krzyzewski Shows Soft Side, Too Krzyzewski often is criticized here, and fairly so, for granting the least access and being the most prickly of the ACC coaches. (We still like 95 percent of what the coach has to offer, but being great is different than being perfect, something many of the program's zombie-like supporters including some in the media haven't figured out yet.) Nevertheless, it should be noted that the coach is capable of letting down his guard, and not just for the national media at the NCAA Tournament. Krzyzewski held an afternoon press conference the week of the North Carolina game during which he seemed almost giddy with joy. Nobody knows if it was just his mood that day, but the coach smiled, entertained reporters with a few quips and even hearkened back to the old days by taking a playful shot at Dean Smith. ACC media members always are thankful for the chance to talk to Krzyzewski, who has a phenomenal basketball mind and a great sense of humor, especially when he is not a grouch. Hopefully, this marks the beginning of a trend rather than the exception to the rule.