Is Duke commit Khaman Maluach better than Joel Embiid at 17?


CAIRO — Duke Blue Devils commit Khaman Maluach has turned from a bit player to a star in the Basketball Africa League, and more eyes are on him than ever before as he competes this week for City Oilers in Egypt, where he made his professional debut two years ago.

When he made his BAL debut in 2022 at age 15, he was playing for Cobra Sport from South Sudan, the country in which he was born and for whom he plays internationally. The following year, he went all the way to the final with AS Douanes of Senegal, the country in which he now resides at the NBA Academy Africa.

This year, the journey has come full circle, as he is starring in the Nile Conference for City Oilers from Uganda, where he grew up and began playing basketball.

One of the reasons he’s become a 2025 NBA Draft prospect is his education at the Academy, under the tutelage of assistant technical director Joe Touomou. The man who helped mold Cameroon’s Joel Embiid (who will play for the USA at the Paris Olympics) as a teen now has Africa’s finest new prospect under his wing.

Maluach is roughly the same age Embiid was when he first crossed paths with Touomou, but Touomou and the NBA Academy coaches have had more time to shape Maluach into a complete player, with the BAL providing the perfect platform to test himself against top talent.

“[Embiid] was 17 and he was raw. Khaman at [17] is 10 times better,” Touomou told ESPN.

“By the time he is 20, he is going to be a very, very good player. That’s the beauty of the academy. Now, we can identify players at a young age and give them a platform to develop and be exposed to competitions like Road to BAL (qualifiers for the Basketball Africa League, in which the academy fields a team to compete against sides chasing qualification).

“That’s one thing players on the continent lack, so the NBA has done a very good job giving these kids a chance to play good competition on the continent. Even when we travel, we come back and train here.

“It’s something that’s never been done before and that’s why you see these kids at a young age be where they are compared to the ones that, at 17, were still raw.”

Maluach has had all the tools he needed to hone his craft, but apart from a well-rounded game, he has something else which a young Embiid, who hid from the first day of a Luc Mbah a Moute camp out of nervousness, lacked: confidence in abundance – one might even call it arrogance, but certainly not without the skills to back it up.

At last year’s BAL, Maluach’s AS Douanes lost their first two games and he saw limited game time. Most 16-year-olds – as he was at the time – would have shied away. Maluach, however, was seen in animated discussions with his coach, Mamadou ‘Pabi’ Guèye.

After Douanes’ second defeat, against Rwandan side REG, Maluach made it clear that he believed he should be getting more of the ball.

“I feel like they’re not finding me. I know the player who I am, and they’re not finding me on court,” he told ESPN in the mixed zone.

“Every time, I’ll be open on the fast breaks. We need a guard who has open eyes and to play more with the bigs, because they are playing less with the bigs.”

It may not have had anything to do with his bold statement, but Guèye eventually relented and trusted Maluach with more responsibility. The results were spectacular, as he played an important role in getting Douanes to the final, which he started in defeat to Cairo’s Al Ahly (not to be confused with their Libyan counterparts).

However, Maluach was not yet the star of the team – that honor was reserved for experienced guard Chris Crawford and his Senegalese teammate, Jean-Jacques Boissy. On his new team, though, 17-year-old Maluach is the leader.

After last year’s BAL, he got back in the lab, won the MVP award at Basketball Without Borders Africa in Johannesburg, and then became the third-youngest player in FIBA World Cup history and the youngest at last year’s tournament, representing South Sudan in the Philippines.

South Sudan is the world’s youngest country, having gained independence in 2011, but even since then, they have been marred by conflict. Prior to independence, Omar al-Bashir’s Sudanese government had sought to quell resistance against his rule from the south by reportedly providing arms to stir conflict between South Sudanese ethnic groups.

This divide-and-rule strategy played a role in creating the tension which led to the South Sudanese Civil War from 2013-2020, even after independence. A new generation of the South Sudanese diaspora has thus been isolated from their homeland, like the one before it, but basketball has become a great source of hope.

The Bright Stars, as the men’s national team is known, qualified for the FIBA World Cup with 11 wins out of 12 games. Although they narrowly missed out on making the second round of the tournament, they still had the best record of all African teams and thus qualified for the Olympics later this year.

Maluach, who was the youngest player at the tournament and the third-youngest in World Cup history, gave a strong account of himself. He contributed a game-high six rebounds in the win over China and in an eight-minute cameo against Angola, he helped South Sudan secure their Olympic spot with five points and four rebounds.

Even against the might of eventual runners-up Serbia, Maluach had his fair share of bright moments, including beating an in-form Nikola Jović of the Miami Heat to a rebound. It was a game in which Maluach proved that he was not far off from being able to hold his own against NBA players, but as usual, he was unsatisfied with his performance, demanding more still of himself.

“I wasn’t proud of my performance there, because at the end of the day, we still lost [115-83], so I wasn’t too happy, because I felt like I could do more and I could have done a lot better than that,” he told ESPN regarding his display against the Jović-inspired Serbia.

Regardless of how Maluach may feel about his individual performances against NBA stars in the World Cup, facing them certainly gave him strong preparation for the Olympics – an opportunity which he is relishing.

“Without Luol Deng, we wouldn’t be where we are. Luol Deng started from zero,” Maluach said.

It is thus of great personal significance to the 17-year-old that by qualifying for the Olympics, he and his team not only made their dreams come true, but also that of the 2x NBA All-Star.

“[Deng and I] always talk about [the Olympics]… We’re waiting for that time and it’s going to be a great time.

“I just can’t wait for that moment. It’s a big thing, so it’s a big year coming up.”

That was back in November. By then, Maluach had already significantly improved his physical condition, adding more muscle to an initially wiry frame.

Jasper Bibbs, who heads up strength and conditioning at the NBA Academy Africa and has worked with NBA stars including Donovan Mitchell and Zion Williamson, told ESPN: “He’s added about 12 pounds of muscle [in a calendar year].

“[He’s] been able to improve his hip mobility, his flexibility – been able to get deeper into his hips and to able to use the strength that he’s now gaining to produce more force while improving his neuromuscular control and power output.

“He’s been able to increase acceleration and deceleration and change direction – [his] movements [are] now quicker and [have] been more fluid and powerful.”

There was the not-so-small matter of picking a college. Duke, UCLA, Kentucky and Kansas were among his suitors. It was a difficult decision to make, but at least Maluach did not have any shortage of confidence in his ability to succeed wherever he went.

He said: “Realistically, it was a very hard decision for me. It’s, like, the hardest decision I’ve ever made in my life right now, because I had Duke on the line, I had Kansas, I had UCLA, I had Kentucky.

“I feel like I would have succeeded anywhere I would have gone to; I feel like I would have played wherever I would have gone to, but I was comfortable going to Duke, talking to the coach, getting to know the coaching staff and players.

“I got to know them more and they got to know me and I was comfortable taking my talent to North Carolina and telling my story at Duke.”

He will play alongside the projected first pick of the 2025 NBA Draft, Cooper Flagg, at Duke. They met for the first time at the recent Nike Hoop Summit in Portland.

“It was a great experience talking to my future teammates – not only Cooper; I met Isaiah [Evans], I met Patrick [Ngongba II]. It was so nice meeting them and I was happy seeing them because they’re my teammates next year and I’m so excited.”

Maluach then hopped on a plane to Cairo to link up with City Oilers. After narrowly missing out on the BAL title last year, he had unfinished business.

First up was a rematch with Al Ahly, who beat him in last year’s final. Maluach struggled in the first half but found his feet in the second and finished with 16 points in a 99-76 defeat.

Ahly head coach Agustí Julbe, a Euroleague champion as an assistant coach at Barcelona and a two-time BAL champion as the man in charge of Zamalek and then Ahly, noticed a marked improvement in Maluach’s game from last year’s final.

“For me, it was a little bit difficult to know which points he had improved. We faced him in the final – he was playing for Douanes of Senegal last year and we were able to stop him,” Julbe said in his post-match press conference.

“Today, especially in the second half, he performed really well against good defensive players, so congrats to him. Of course, he has a bright future ahead. Everything is at his hands to get to the highest level, so I wish him well.”

Karim Nesba, who doubles up as his coach for the NBA Academy Africa and City Oilers, cautioned that Maluach was battling jet lag.

“Those guys from Al Ahly – you’ve got to give them credit. They’re good. They played very well and they’re disciplined. Their gameplan is perfect. Khaman is a sponge – in one half, he can absorb and get better and better,” he added.

Projected as the third pick in the 2025 NBA Draft, Maluach is proving that he not only has the physical and technical capabilities to succeed at the highest level, but also the resilience, determination and sheer audacity to become a star.

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