Luol Deng can absolutely relate to the South Sudanese Australian basketball community.
A two-time NBA All-Star, having played for some of the most storied franchises in NBA history, Deng has never lost touch with his roots. His humble beginnings as a refugee resonate with those participating in the South Sudanese Australian National Classic.
The Classic, which took over Werribee's Eagle Stadium this past weekend, saw 60 teams in five divisions face off against one another. Deng was a very interested onlooker.
It is a case of seeing is believing. When these young kids connect with Deng in person, after having watched him dominate NBA games on TV, their dreams of one day playing in the NBA are all of a sudden very real and attainable.
There's no doubt that Deng, currently playing for the Los Angeles Lakers, is looked up to and seen as a role model by South Sudanese Australian's, and he doesn't take this responsibility lightly. Work done through the Luol Deng Foundation has changed the lives of kids all over the globe.
“I love it." Deng said. "I think I’m very blessed and very lucky to be South Sudanese and to be in the position that I’m in – it’s something that I enjoy."
Yesterday Deng hosted his National Classic Clinic, followed by an U18 All-Star game - with some of the best young talent in the country in attendance.
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Deng's work with the kids was basketball focused, but the lessons and values instilled go way beyond the hardwood.
"To me, it's a lot more than just a game. Last time I came [to Australia in 2015], I was shocked by the community and how together everybody was." Deng said.
"Every year, the years that I miss, it's always been very hard for me because I just feel like it's something that I'm a part of. Now I'm starting to see some of the kids that are grown up and who they're becoming and what they're doing."
Seeing the next generation coming through has Deng excited about the future of South Sudanese basketball.
"We’re going to have so many players in the NBA in the future and I really believe that in the near future, it's not just going to be one or two that we talk about, it's going to be three or four." Deng said. "Hopefully these kids are seeing that and believing even more.”
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The kids are definitely seeing these stars taking over the NBA, and Aussie Thon Maker is front and centre of this revolution.
Deng faced off against Maker once this past NBA season, and is impressed by not just his athletic ability, but his work ethic and desire to be great.
“I got to know Thon a little bit - I didn’t know him before, I’d never had the chance – but I’m really proud of him." Deng said. "I know a lot of his coaching staff and teammates and they speak highly of him."
He’s going to have a great NBA career and the best thing they said about him is his attitude."
"I spoke to him the other day and he is in Milwaukee already back working out - when you see that in a young player, it’s a good sign because he has the talent and the skills." Deng said.
"I’m really excited about the direction that his career is going.”
Maker recently shared his thoughts on Deng being in Australia, and he loves what Deng is doing.
"It's big. I want to get a chance to go down there but I’m busy here working out and trying to get better. I want to get a chance and say my piece to the kids but he’s doing a great job of it." Maker told Ben Mallis at the NBA Las Vegas Summer League.
"There’s a lot of talent over there, believe me, there is a lot of talent over there. Those guys are getting better. As long as they have someone to tell them what it’s like. Luol isn’t going to tell them fake news, he’s going to tell them how it is over here." Maker said.
Another Aussie player and teammate of Maker's in Milwaukee, of whom Deng has a strong bond with, is Matthew Dellavedova. The two were teammates in Cleveland for a short period time, in what was Dellavedova's rookie season.
Deng joined a long list of players who have Delly among their favourite teammates ever.
“Delly is one of my favourite teammates. We actually played in the Steve Nash tournament in New York together and we got to spend time together off the court and he’s honestly one of my favourite guys that I’ve played with." Deng said.
I’m really proud of how his career has shaped up. When he first came in, nobody gave him a chance and now he’s an NBA Champion."
Deng, along with Dellavedova and Maker, are living proof that an opportunity is all that some people need to succeed. Deng is ensuring that as many kids as possible have that opportunity.
If you want a true taste of the knowledge and inspiration Deng passed on to the kids, check out out his inspiring speech at the final day of the Classic below.