Deng Adel remembers the feeling of stepping onto an NBA floor for the first time, a sensation that comes with chasing a lifelong dream.
“I was nervous,” Adel told The Pick and Roll. “So very nervous.”
Most NBA rookies are a bundle of nerves, when it comes to their debut. Adel had been dreaming about lofting his jump shot on the NBA hardwood for the longest time, but what if that first shot was an airball? The thought rattled around Adel’s mind ceaselessly when he debuted for the Cleveland Cavaliers on January 19th.
He had nothing to fear.
Adel sent the ball flying with his customary smooth stroke. After a seeming eternity, the basketball made its way through the hoop, and slid through the nylon. Three points were the tangible result for Adel and the Cavaliers, but more importantly, an NBA career was off and running.
“The first time was amazing,” Adel explained. “That feeling, you can’t trade it for anything and I am just happy.”
Such optimistic joy is a defining characteristic of Australia’s newest NBA athlete. Spend any time around Adel and it is the most glaring of takeaways. His warm smile and innocent laugh are the accompaniments to discussions on basketball developments. They are so genuine, so inviting, actually, that it is impossible to seperate Adel from the journey that led to this point.
“It just seems like he never has a bad day,” says Larry Drew, head coach of the Cavaliers. “Every time he comes in to the gym, he is always smiling.”
Adel’s story has been told often enough, but it doesn’t diminish the happenstance that led to his NBA debut. Adel, his mother and five siblings came to Australia in 2004 after fleeing war-torn South Sudan via Uganda. Incredibly, basketball only came into Adel’s life at the age of 14. Soccer was Adel’s first love, and the switch only occurred because he moved into a neighbourhood where everyone played basketball. What a move that turned out to be.
Adel, who spent three years in college with the Louisville Cardinals, was signed by the Cavaliers to a two-way contract in mid-January. He had spent the first half of the G League season with the Raptors 905, Toronto’s G League affiliate, starting in 24 of his 25 outings, averaging 13 points and 5.4 rebounds in 31 minutes per game. Impressed with his talent and adaptability in the modern NBA, Cleveland jumped at the chance to add Adel to their rebuilding roster.
“I love having Deng around the team,” Drew said. “What I like about him is that he has such versatility; you can play him at multiple positions because of his versatility.”
While Adel has finally infiltrated the NBA, he has spent the past two months yo-yoing between the Cavaliers and the Canton Charge, Cleveland’s G League affiliate. This has presented an ever-changing challenge for someone in his first professional season.
“In college, the schedule is laid out for you but in the league, you are responsible for everything,” says Adel, who has been forced to adapt to the ruthless, non-stop nature of the NBA.
By his own admission, Adel battled with finding consistency within the world of professional sports during his time with the Raptors 905. Such growing pains are a rite of passage when integrating into the NBA but now, as a member of the Cavaliers, Adel can identify areas of growth during his rookie season.
“I think a lot of that [inconsistency] was me getting more experience and playing more because it is obviously different from college,” Adel explained. “It is obviously different from high school or playing in Australia; it is way different.
“The more I got to play on the floor, the quicker I started to pick up things and I think over the past couple of months I have done a good job being consistent. Preparing mentally and going out there and just playing.”
Adel’s opportunities in Cleveland have been limited - he has appeared in just 15 games and played a total of 181 NBA minutes – but time around an NBA organisation has provided a platform for the Melbourne-raised forward to improve the vital aspects of his game.
“I am continuing to work on my body and continuing to work on my shooting. Just learning the game; the more experience I get, the more I learn and just doing the little stuff. I play very hard and I will continue to do that. Defend at a high level. Just bring a lot of energy and then over the course of the season build. Obviously being able to create my own shot and look for others.”
Both the Cavaliers and Charge are already eliminated from playoff contention in their respective leagues. It means that Adel is mere weeks away from the offseason. While some players choose to prioritise rest after a long campaign, Adel has other ideas. He can’t wait to get back in the gym and commence a summer that could shape his NBA career for the years to come.
“I really want to go straight [into workouts] when the season ends. I really want to take maybe two days and then go straight into it. I think I’ll take a week off from basketball and just lift during that week. Get in the weight room and do a lot of body exercise. After that week is over, just relax a little bit, have some fun and then back to it."
Adel will be a free agent when the Cavaliers season finishes, which means he will be auditioning for another NBA contract at Las Vegas Summer League in July.
“Summer League is around the corner, so prepare for that. Not just preparing for Summer League, but preparing for the season. Summer League is a great pit stop to show what you have worked on and what you can bring to a team. This summer is going to be the biggest summer of my playing career.”
Debuting with the Cavaliers signalled the dawn of Adel’s NBA existence. It ensured he will always be known as an NBA athlete and that sensation, while the highlight of a life-changing season for the 22-year-old, is something Adel still struggles to comprehend.
"I am lost for words because I know how much hard work I put in and it shows that if you work hard, your dreams will come true and it pays off,” says Adel.
Those seem like wise words. Prophetic too, as thanks to his tireless dedication and relentless spirit, Deng Adel's NBA career is only just beginning.