One of the most talented players to ever come out of the UK - with Ajou Deng - Ep. 69 -

One of the most talented players to ever come out of the UK – with Ajou Deng – Ep. 69

In Episode 69 of the Hoopsfix Podcast we speak with Ajou Deng, one of the most talented players to ever come out of the UK.

Standing 6’11” with a 7’4″ wingspan, Deng – the older brother of NBA and GB star Luol – had a skillset ahead of his time, being able to face up and handle the ball on the perimeter, ending up one of the most heralded prospects to ever land at UConn.

Growing up through a devastating civil war in Sudan, him and his family fled to Egypt where he picked up a basketball for the first time under the tutelage of 7’7″ Sudanese NBA star Manute Bol.

From there, his family were granted asylum to England, where he played for Brixton Topcats for a year and a half under Jimmy Rogers before attracting the attention of UConn, committing early and making the move to St Thomas More High School in the US for two seasons, where he averaged 22 points, 12 rebounds and seven blocks a game.

He was named a Parade All American Third team in 1998, before joining UConn in the 98-99 season, where, led by future NBA players Richard Hamilton and Khalid El Amin, they won a national championship although Ajou was stuck to practicing only due to being academically ineligible.

The level of hype around him was unprecedented, Khalid El Amin called him the best player on their roster that year in a Sports Illustrated feature spread, as he was named the Big East preseason rookie of the year.

Battling through foot injuries in college and with minutes hard to come by, Deng announced he was transferring from UConn in his Sophomore year, ending up at Fairfield for his final two years at college whilst still having foot issues.

Having been told by a doctor he should never play again, a year out rehabbing after college saw him sign his first pro contract with Nick Nurse’s Brighton Bears in the BBL, where he would go on to have a five year pro career predominantly in the UK along with a season in Slovakia, before hanging them up after the 2008-9 season.

He now works full time for the Luol Deng Foundation.

Note: Ajou joined us on the call from Uganda where the internet connection wasn’t always the strongest, we have edited most of the drops out where possible, but there are still moments where it gets a little choppy – stick with it and it gets stronger as the call goes on!

In this 90 minute episode, hear from Ajou on:

  • How he first started playing basketball in Egypt under Manute Bol
  • The provision for basketball in Egypt and the environment he was playing in
  • Watching old VHS tapes of the NBA and cultivating his love for the game
  • Arriving in the UK, being turned down by Crystal Palace and ending up at Brixton
  • The culture shock of the UK
  • His first impressions of the legendary Jimmy Rogers
  • Standout players in the British basketball landscape as he was coming up
  • The Brixton – Hackney rivalry with Joe White’s teams and Andrew Sullivan
  • How Tony Hanson – a UConn legend then coaching in the UK – was the first to put Jim Calhoun and the UConn programme on to Ajou
  • Heading to St Thomas More Prep school under Jere Quinn and how instrumental that was to his development
  • The players he was looking up to for his own skill development
  • Transitioning from the UK to the US and the physicality and athleticism
  • Coming back in the summers to play in Rough and Ready
  • His first year at UConn and having to sit out, practising only
  • The ’99 squad winning the national championship but not being able to play
  • The Sports Illustrated article where Khalid El Amin said he was the best player on the team
  • Whether he felt pressure of the expectations placed upon him
  • Playing through a foot injury and having to take painkillers daily to practice
  • Trying to focus on basketball with the civil war going on in Sudan and seeing it as an opportunity to inspire and represent other South Sudanese
  • The decision to transfer 5 or so games into his Sophomore season at UConn
  • Why he chose to go to Fairfield
  • His goal to make the NBA
  • Whether he has any regrets about his college career
  • Taking a year to rehab his injury having been told by a doctor to never play again
  • Turning pro and signing with Brighton Bears under Nick Nurse
  • His memories of Nick Nurse as a coach
  • His time in Scotland and Guildford
  • Going into Europe with the Guildford Heat
  • What kept him going despite the repetitive foot injuries
  • His experiences playing in Slovakia
  • Why he chose to retire when he did
  • His role with the Luol Deng Foundation since retiring
  • Seeing Luol coming through as a youngster and what he has gone on to do with his career
  • Advice he would give to younger players aspiring to play pro
  • And much, much more!

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