Athletic, talented, and skilled are three words that help describe Deng Adel's game. He is also a hard worker.
When asked to describe how he sees himself and his strengths, Adel did not hesitate in answering.
"I like to attack the basket like Russell Westbrook, but I can shoot better than Westbrook," outlined Adel in speaking exclusively with The Pick and Roll just before he boarded a plane in Melbourne on his way back to the US.
"However I admire Kawhi Leonard, and I try to model my game on him."
Those are high expectations, but it is clear that Adel is motivated to achieve his goals of one day playing in the NBA.
Motivated to achieve
Adel is extremely driven and motivated as he works to achieve his goals. That drive and relentless pursuit of excellence was noticeable even before he headed to Louisville to play under legendary head coach Rick Pitino. It all started with the Longhorns basketball club based in the western suburbs of Melbourne.
"I started with Longhorns basketball," explained Adel. "I then went on to play rep [representative basketball] at Keilor as a bottom-aged under-16 player."
"I did that and then started the AUBD [Australian Basketball Development] program at Waverley. I trained every week day in the morning and played rep for the Waverley Falcons, playing Big V Youth League."
Deng Adel | Photo credit: adidas
Adel attended Xavier College in Melbourne before then heading to Victory Rock prep school near Tampa Bay, Florida. His dedication to hard work saw his continued emergence at Victory Rock, gaining the attention of the Cardinals for whom he committed to. Playing for Louisville under Pitino was a no-brainer for Adel, it was also the same team that fellow Australian Mangok Mathaing was playing for.
"He is a Hall of Fame coach," shared Adel in choosing to play for Pitino. "If you just buy-in and listen, you will be successful. He is able to see a lot in you that you don’t necessarily see yourself."
Pitino was arguably just as high on the potential that Adel promised when he first arrived at Louisville.
"Wow!" exclaimed Pitino in his address to the school. "So much potential with such an eagerness to learn. Explosive athlete who gets better and better."
The idea of playing for a big-time major program with a Hall of Fame coach is one thing, but actually living that out did prove to be a challenge. However it was just the challenge that Adel craved.
"The first couple of weeks were tough, he is a tough coach," added Adel on his first season with the Cardinals. "If you can survive training and the games, you can survive anywhere."
"I just love his approach, his love of the game, and his will to win. That rubs off on us and everyone on the team."
Adel was primed for a breakout freshman year with Louisville. He had torched his team mates for 35 points in an intra-team scrimmage to make his case for a starting berth. He would continue to excel and start the first two games of the season, alongside fellow wing and team star Damion Lee. That was before a mishap at training saw him injure his knee.
"I started doing really well, and ended up starting the first two games - I did okay," shared Adel. "I was just getting used to it and then it happened. It was an unfortunate injury at practice. I landed awkwardly."
The diagnosis was a MCL sprain, an injury that would sideline Adel for just over a month and miss 8-games. It was a tough setback given he had been given the opportunity to start in his first season. While it was a frustrating experience, Adel remained positive and tried to contribute and learn in different ways.
"I learned from the sidelines," added Adel. "I also got involved in scouting and watched a lot of film. Thankfully I am now well and truly over it [the injury]."
Deng Adel | Credit: Louisville Athletics
In speaking with Adel, it was hard not to hear the excitement in his voice about his short time at Louisville so far. Limited by injury, he was able to post 4 points and 2.1 rebounds per game. While his on court performances did not live up to his own high-expectations, he confirmed that he really enjoyed the experience, the chance to improve, but also to play alongside his good friend Mathiang.
"[Last season I got a feel for the atmosphere and venues," said Adel. "[I was] Learning the game, trying to understand Pitino's mind. I also had the chance to play with Mangok [Mathiang]. It was like playing with my older brother."
"We are both trying to accomplish the same thing. He was able to help me with my transition [to school and with the team]. He showed me the discipline required to be a college athlete."
Like Adel, Mathiang also sustained a serious injury - breaking his foot just as Adel was about to return to action. Coupled with Louisville's self-imposed ban in the fallout from an alleged pay-for-sex scandal, the situation ultimately resulted in Mathiang sitting out the rest of the season to fully recover.
"Playing with Mangok [Mathiang] is like playing with my older brother," expressed Adel. "We are both trying to accomplish the same thing. He helped with my transition [to school] and showed me the discipline of what it takes to be a college athlete."
"Both of us being hurt was unfortunate. We have each other's back. We both stayed strong and supportive of each other. Our focus was on getting healthy and better. We were always and will continue to be always there for each other."
Louisville's self-imposed ban
While Adel would not elaborate on the actual ban, he acknowledged that the impact had an effect on the players. The two players impacted the most were senior transfers Trey Lewis and Damion Lee. Both transferred to the Cardinals to have a chance to plat in the NCAA tournament, and both only arrived with one year of eligibility remaining.
"For me, my ultimate goal is to win a national championship," outlined Adel. "This situation only motivates me more for next year. However it did hurt [the ban], especially the older guys who came in last year [Lewis and Lee]. Just seeing how hurt they were. Seeing their goals and dreams ripped away from them."
"We are a close team. We talked about it and supported each other. It was really difficult as none of us were involved [in the allegations] and we had no control over it. It was really tough. It just serves as more motivation for us remaining for next season."
Looking ahead to next season, the Cardinal have been able to assemble one of the most loaded rosters in college basketball. Mathiang returns in full health, having been named team captain, while Adel is expected to play a bigger role now that Lee has departed.
"We are a top 10 team in my opinion," Adel enthused. "We are a close team, a talented team. We are thirsty to work and I am just excited to get back. I am expecting and wanting to take on a big role as we look to achieve our goals."
Expectations surrounding Adel and the Cardinals continues to rise for next season. The departing Lee made it abundantly clear just how good he thought Adel could be.
"When Deng [Adel] gets it and Deng gets going, I'm telling you, next year – you can mark my words and this might be some pressure, but I think he's the type of kid to fight and live up to it – I think he'll be one of the best players in the country," Lee said.
Recently, Pitino suggested that Adel could be as good as any player he has coached at Louisville due to his physical attributes.
Whether Adel can live up to those high expectations, time will only tell, yet Pitino himself has set bar incredibly high for his team. He has publicly suggested that the Cardinals' length and speed mirror the strengths of the 1996 NCAA championship squad he coached at arch rival Kentucky. That team went 34-2 and resulted in 9 players progressing to the NBA.
For now, Adel is focused on what he can control and looking forward to re-joining his team as they prepare to return to the NCAA Tournament. Should Adel and his good friend Mathiang stay healthy, expect to see them both dancing in 2017.
Special thanks to Adam McKay at Helping Hoops and Deng Adel for their time in enabling this interview.