BURNABY — His first name is Majok, but you’re excused if you say Magic.
“He is just a really engaging kid, an intellectual at heart,” begins head coach Bal Dhillon when asked to describe the essence of the 6-foot-8 senior guard/forward with Burnaby’s Triple A No. 1-ranked Byrne Creek Bulldogs.
“He is a critical thinker, a big-picture thinker,” continues Dhillon of Deng, 18, a Principal’s List student-athlete and first-generation Canadian whose family immigrated to this country from Africa’s South Sudan. “It’s not his aspiration, but he is the kind of guy who could grow up to be a professor.”
That’s if he doesn’t first explore the potential of a pro basketball career when his collegiate career is finished, or follow his true academic passion into engineering.
Yet if you put the focus squarely on his athletic skills, there is also a universe waiting to uncovered, because as much as Majok Deng is filled with subtleties off the court, the basketball purist could say exactly the same thing about the way he lives and breathes the game on the court.
ROCK, CHALK, MAJOK
Dhillon provides the perfect starting point for any discussion of Deng’s basketball skills when he says “he can score six points and still control a basketball game.”
On some occasions that’s what he does.
Yet when the need arises, on a team that is filled with varying offensive weapons thanks to the likes of teammates Bithow Wan, Sufi Ahmed and Martin Djunga, Deng can step up with the best of them.
Take the occasion of the Burnaby-New Westminster championship final when Deng supplied 23 points on 10-of-13 shooting, and had 14 rebounds and five blocks in a win over Quad-A crosstown rival Burnaby South.
Then on Wednesday, in a mid-day test at Richmond’s Olympic Oval, Deng scored 21 points as the Bulldogs dumped the Richmond Colts 97-69 in the Lower Mainland Triple A semifinals, securing a berth in Friday’s 6:15 p.m. championship final.
Still, it’s Dhillon’s comment that speaks to not only the subtle things that Deng so acutely understands to be important in the flow of the game, but also the way he is able to speak to those more under-rated tenets.
“First of all, I take pride in that,” he begins when told of his head coach’s assessment. “I know the impact I can have just affecting shots, making extra passes… just being an extra body. I’m a 6-8 kid they have to double, and we have a high-powered offence, so I pass the basketball.
“When you think about it, it’s all about being willing to sacrifice,” Deng continues. “I remember when I first started playing, the first thing I worked on were my handles and my jump shot. Not post moves, not the regular big-man stuff. Bal has always wanted me to be as versatile as I can be, and that’s what I want for my game.”
Like we said, it’s OK if you said Magic.
A TRUE BASKETBALL BROTHER
Before his family moved into Byrne Creek’s Edmonds’ neighbourhood prior to his Grade 10 year to be with his aging grandmother, Deng grew up in Surrey, learning the game from his role model, brother Reng, a Guildford Park product who is six years his elder and this season a senior starter in the OUA with the Algoma Thunderbirds.
From Reng, Majok saw how basketball could be a bridge to the future, in terms of both academic and athletic goals.
“He is definitely one of the main reasons I started playing basketball,” says Deng. “He showed me it could be a way to get your education paid for and a way to start planning your career.”
While local university interest, for some reason, has been slightly luke warm for Deng, the Ontario schools, from top to bottom, have let him know how interested they are.
“After university, I’ll weigh my options,” Deng says. “If a professional opportunity is there for me, I will look at it. But at some point I will have to give it up and so I plan on pursuing sciences and then transferring into engineering.”
While nothing is set in stone, he is not averse to heading east, noting that his brother, a budding law student, has told him about the joys of a distraction-free environment with which to tackle academics and athletics.
Like we said, it’s OK if you said Magic.
AN EASY READ
Bal Dhillon loves the printed word, and he has made it a point to pass along books to those students for whom reading is a passion.
And that’s why, three years ago, when a social studies teacher at Byrne Creek told him all about a student who was buried in his reading, even during classes, Dhillon made it a priority to search out the young Majok Deng.
“I gave him a book when he was in Grade 10 and for that age, it wasn’t the easiest read,” Dhillon smiles pridefully when recounting how he passed along his copy of the David Halberstam basketball book ‘Playing For Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made’.
“Three days after I gave it to him, I asked him how he was enjoying it, and he said he really liked it,” continued Dhillon. “He was already finished. It covered anecdotal stories from the Dream Team era but it also looks at the rise of corporate America and how Michael Jordan contributes to the world he made. There are sociological parallels there, too.”
Ask Deng about his joy for reading, something he calls a hobby since he was in the first grade, and he cops to a huge curiosity about the NBA and the journey its players took to arrive at their station.
“When it comes to the NBA, I consider myself a student of it,” says Deng. “I just finished Jalen Rose’s book last night, about the Fab Five and his time at Michigan. I just want to gain some perspective on how they came up, how they faced adversity and how they got through it. I need that perspective because I know I will face it in my own basketball life.”
It’s not Magic. It’s Majok.
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