On a bright summer day in 1993, two Dinka tribesmen, unable to live safely in their native Sudan, met on a windswept court in Alexandria, Egypt, for a game of one-on-one. Ajou Deng, now a freshman forward at Connecticut, remembers every detail of the encounter precisely: the brisk Mediterranean breeze, the piercing sun and the intimidating sight of Manute Bol, the 7'7" NBA center, looming before him, arms raised, fingertips inches below the rim. When Bol dunked, which was often that day, he looked like one of those flexible drinking straws that are used in ice-cream sodas. Deng was a gawky 13-year-old, already 6'5", who had taken up basketball only two years before. The game, as one might expect, wasn't close. Deng attempted to shoot a layup. Swat. He tried to launch long-range jumpers. Swat. When it was over, he smiled and hoped he'd someday grow tall enough to swipe basketballs from the air and make crowds gasp with wonder, just as his idol did.
Six years later, at last March's Final Four in Tampa, Deng got his chance. Limited to practicing with the Huskies last season because he was only a partial academic qualifier, Deng, now 6'11" and 205 pounds, showed off his pterodactyl-sized 7'4" wingspan during an open-to-the-public practice before the semifinals. Up went teammate Ricky Moore's jump shot. Swat. Up went Jake Voskuhl's layup. Swat. "He blocks five or six shots—spectacular blocks—and everyone is oohing and aahing," says UConn coach Jim Calhoun. "I'll remember that forever." In a matter of 10 minutes Deng nearly became the first player to make the All-Final Four team without seeing a minute of time in the tournament.
Not everyone at Tropicana Field was caught by surprise that afternoon. Only days earlier a reporter had asked Huskies guard Khalid El-Amin how Deng was playing in practice. "Oh, he's the best player on the team," El-Amin replied.
You mean besides you and Richard Hamilton, right?
"I said, he's the best player on the team?
Whether El-Amin was inflating Deng's reputation remains to be seen, but this much is undeniable: Unlike Bol, who was little more than a shot-blocking sideshow, Deng, who's a small forward, comes equipped with a full array of talents. He not only posts up and rebounds but also dribbles behind his back, leads the break and shoots a silky three. If he wanted, he could do interviews in four languages: Arabic, two Dinka dialects and (his latest addition) English. Yet those attributes aren't nearly as remarkable as the odyssey—from war-ravaged Sudan to Egypt to England to America—that has serendipitously landed him in Connecticut.
First, make sure to get his name right. Nobody does. For starters, Ajou is pronounced ah-JOE, not ah-JOO or AH-joo or any of the other manifold ways he has heard. This will come as a shock to many folks at UConn, because Deng is so unfailingly polite that he not only refuses to correct anybody who calls him ah-JOO but also deliberately mispronounces his name that way on his answering machine. "Everyone knows me here as ah-JOO," he says, "so I've just used it as a nickname. But I would like people to know my real name."
For that matter Deng has also ditched the tripartite handle by which he has been known in recruiting circles. Since arriving in the U.S. three years ago, he has been known by his full name Ajou Ajou Deng, a linguistic mouthful that, while correct (Ajou is also his middle name), wouldn't exactly resonate from the pipes of Michael (Let's Get Ready to Rumble) Buffer during intros at Gampel Pavilion. From now on, per his request, he'll be Ajou Deng, unless you're talking to Huskies coaches and players, who just call him Juice.
The details are important, because to know Deng's name is to understand his game. In Dinka, ajou means "sea of placid water," while deng is the word for "rain," which the Dinkas believe issues directly from God. Likewise, Deng plays with a smooth, almost gospel grace. During one September pickup game at UConn's Hughs Greer Fieldhouse, he froze El-Amin on the dribble, took forward Kevin Freeman to the baseline and nailed a 19-foot jumper. The next time downcourt he knifed through the lane on the break and zipped a pass to guard Albert Mouring for a layup. Two minutes later, apparently undistracted by his rapidly descending gym shorts, he un-spooled a three-pointer from the top of the key. For the next half hour the shots kept falling, one after the other. Like deng.
"What's remarkable about Juice are the wonderful endings to his plays," says Calhoun. "Some kids just try to dunk everything. Other kids always do fadeaway jump shots. He's got tricks: up-and-unders, finger rolls, all those things. We're trying to figure out where he got them. Was it in Egypt or the streets of London that he picked up all these New York City playground moves? I have no idea, but they seem very natural."