DURHAM, N.C. - Luol Deng can handle the pressure of being groomed as Duke’s next star. It can’t be harder than his childhood. Deng left Sudan when he was 5 and lived in poverty in Egypt when his father was exiled from their African homeland, where 20 years of civil war has killed more than 2 million people.
"Just the way I handle myself and some of things I’ve seen in my past made me mature a little early,” Deng said.
Deng’s father, Aldo, was Sudan’s minister of transportation in the mid-1980s. As fighting intensified in the country, he sent his family to Egypt, and a year later he told government officials he was going on vacation.
Instead, he joined his son and the rest of the family and never went home, leaving behind the house, car and almost everything else. He now lives in England, where he has political asylum.
Deng often thinks about other children who remained in Sudan, many of whom were orphaned and have struggled to survive.
“There is someone out there that is as talented or more talented who is the opposite story of me,” he said. “I came out and he couldn’t. There are a lot of those guys out there. That’s why I am so thankful for the opportunity I have been given.”
Deng, a member of the Dinka tribe, was so young he doesn’t recall much about the bloodshed that engulfed the African country.
“Sometimes my parents tell me it’s better that I don’t remember,” he said. “I know where I’m from and that’s good enough for me.”
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski recognizes Deng’s poise on and off the basketball court and was impressed by how quickly the 6-foot-8 freshman earned his teammates’ respect.
Deng scored 21 points in his Duke debut's win, 67-56, over Detroit. He wore No. 33 in high school to honor former Duke star Grant Hill, but he is No. 2 on the Blue Devils.
“He’s already won the confidence of his team,” Krzyzewski said. “When that happens you’ve got a really good guy. Our players are secure enough to recognize he’ll be one of the best players, not only on our team, but in the ACC and the country.”
Deng doesn’t feel burdened by the expectations.
“There isn’t pressure knowing that coach is on your side and your teammates are on your side,” Deng said. “There would be pressure if I was going on the floor by myself. I don’t see any weight on my shoulders.”
Deng took an interest in basketball as a youngster after seeing former NBA player Manute Bol teach his brothers the game.
“When we moved to Egypt, he saw my brother playing and nothing was organized,” Deng said. “We just got a ball and played on dirt. We didn’t know anything else. Bol told us to slow down and he would teach us to play.”
Deng lived in Egypt for two years before moving with his family to England. At 14, Deng’s interest in basketball blossomed and he was able to enroll in a New Jersey boarding school, Blair Academy, to begin his prep career. Two years later, he was already being recruited by Krzyzewski.
Deng recalled the first time the Hall of Fame coach came to his school.
“I was really, really nervous,” Deng said. “I remember him telling me when I shake hands it should be a firm handshake, but I was so shy and nervous.
“When I started to get recruited by Duke I started to realize I was doing the right thing. Coach K let me know I was on the right path.”
Once at Duke, he was quickly embraced by his new teammates. They let him get the first dunk at Midnight Madness.
“I almost missed it,” Deng said. “I was just so happy to see it go in. It showed how much my teammates love me by allowing me to open the night like that.”
Duke point guard Chris Duhon said it seems as if Deng grabs every rebound and every loose ball.
“It seems like he can jump from the 3-point line and lay it up,” Duhon said. “He uses his body well. He’s probably our best inside finisher when it comes to making layups in traffic. He’s going to be a guy who does it all for us.”
Everyone else at Duke loves Deng’s considerable talents, too. He has a 7-foot wingspan and has been compared at times to a young version of his hero, Hill.
“If it wasn’t for Grant I don’t think I would be playing on the perimeter. I would have just been an inside guy,” Deng said. “When I saw him I said, ’Hey, he’s kind of tall and he’s bringing the ball up.’ For people to see that I’ve patterned my game after him is an honor.”
Krzyzewski will be careful not to rush Deng’s progress in November and December. “We don’t want him to be 24 while he’s 18,” the coach said.
But will Krzyzewski learn any Dinka from Deng, who speaks three languages?
“No,” Krzyzewski said, “he’s going to have to brush up on his Polish.”
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