Loyalty begets loyalty: John Bol Ajak’s journey to the Orange
Loyalty begets loyalty: John Bol Ajak's journey to the Orange
This time a year ago, Syracuse basketball recruit John Bol Ajak was preparing for the April evaluation periods where he would be playing in front of scores of major college coaches on the Nike EYBL circuit with his Philly-area AAU club, Team Final.
Although he’d be displaying his talents in front of potential suitors from across the country, the future Syracuse signee had a good idea where he’d be spending his college years, and it wasn’t on the Hill. At the time, Villanova was coming off its second national championship in three seasons and while Ajak was considering other big-time programs like Georgetown, Wake Forest and Syracuse, he thought he would play out April and eventually commit to the national champs.
Then came the evaluation period. To put it mildly, Ajak struggled. Anyone watching could see that he was not himself, as he limped his way to averages of just two points and four rebounds per game that spring for Team Final, with twice as many turnovers as assists and only two blocks in 12 games.
In the cutthroat world of college basketball recruiting, scholarship offers can evaporate within a matter of weeks. Before he knew it, one school after another had stopped texting, stopped calling and stopped showing up to his games — Villanova included.
“It was the toughest time of my life. That was really tough, to get all the hype and high-major offers, and then come the spring…” Ajak recollected in a phone interview before trailing off. “I didn’t have a good spring, I was playing very bad because of the injury and the team we had, we didn’t really mesh really well.”
What many did not know was that the 6-foot-11 native of South Sudan was playing through an Achilles’ tendon injury at the time, severely hampering his ability to get up and down the floor or move laterally. It was during that time that Ajak was able to see who really wanted him, and two people who clearly fit the description and never wavered were Jim Boeheim and associate head coach Adrian “Red” Autry.
“They never got down on me,” Ajak said. “They always said, ‘We’ve seen you play enough, you can bounce back from this.’”
Now that loyalty has a chance to pay off in a big way for the Orange. After taking a break to get healthy and switching to a lower-profile AAU team more tailored to his skill set for the next set of evaluation periods, last July, Ajak was back to his old self. Boeheim, Autry and assistant coach Gerry McNamara were mainstays on the sidelines at Ajak’s games with Philly-area club East Coast Power at tournaments in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Florida.
New scholarship offers came in, but when it came time to make a decision on his future, Ajak rewarded the Syracuse staff’s loyalty to him by committing to the Orange, turning down offers from Pittsburgh, VCU and Saint Joseph’s.
“That’s one of the big reasons I came to Syracuse, because they really stayed down,” Ajak said. “The coaches were just honest with me; I felt a loyalty. I wanted to play for a championship team, and I felt like they had the best talent around me to get that. I felt like I could be the missing piece to the puzzle.”
Syracuse fans can expect Ajak to be a mainstay in the middle of Boeheim’s infamous 2-3 zone defense. He also can bring a dynamic offensive skill set that will give the Orange some added versatility in the frontcourt.
“Bol is really skilled. He can really really shoot it, he can really, really pass it, his basketball IQ is off the charts,” said Seth Berger, Ajak’s coach at the Westtown School, a Quaker college-prep school in the suburbs of Philadelphia that has become a regional basketball power. “He’ll help that team stretch the floor to add a little bit more space for the bigs, and he’s also a really good rebounder. He boxes out really well and he’s a very good positional defender in the zone. He can play the middle and the wing, so I think he’s going to help Syracuse in lots of ways.”
While the coaching staff has stressed to Ajak that they need him to be ready to play right away, his impact figures to stretch beyond his talents on the court. Possessing a magnetic personality and an intense passion for the game, Ajak has blossomed as a teammate and leader during his later high school years.
The South Sudan native moved to Kenya with his family when he was less than a month old to escape civil war. He later came to the United States for high school in 2015 and credits his parents back in Kenya for instilling leadership qualities in him from a young age.
Berger stressed how Ajak’s leadership was felt most strongly when he was relegated to the bench for the opening portion of the season with a hip injury, recalling a close early-season loss that Ajak had to miss for a trip to the doctor.
“Bol is such a great teammate that even if he’s not scoring, even if he’s not playing, he helps the team,” he said. “We missed his leadership on the bench so much that the team basically had no one to rally around, because he was our leader.”
Looking back, Ajak is thankful for the experiences that led him to pledge his commitment to Boeheim, Autry and the Orange. Without it, he said, he would not be the player he is today and would not possess the work ethic that he’ll need in order to be successful in the ACC.
“Having all those offers and then realizing, ‘Oh shoot, I really have to work for this,’ just prepared me for what the future’s going to be like, as far as having to earn everything,” he said. “I feel like if I never had that, I would never be the player I am today. It helped me to really work on my game and understand the process of what it takes to be where I want to be.”
Do the ghosts of options of the past — Villanova, Georgetown, etc. — still linger in the back of his mind? Not in the slightest. Ajak has his heart set firmly on spending the next four years in Syracuse, and now back at full health is devoting himself to training on the court and in the weight room to be ready come the start of summer session in July.
As they say, loyalty begets loyalty.
“I just want to be around the guys. I’m super excited,” he said. “I’m just looking forward to my development up there at Syracuse.”