Baylor center Jo Lual-Acuil plays with a certain fearlessness and freedom as one of the top shot blockers in the country.
College basketball is like a playground to Lual-Acuil. Swatting away shots and protecting the rim is a great release for a guy who ran for his life to escape war as a child in Sudan.
With Sudan embroiled in a civil war in the late 1990s, Lual-Acuil and his family left everything behind to find safety in Uganda.
Lual-Acuil and his mother, sister and two brothers literally escaped their native country with just the clothes on their back. He was only 3 years old at the time.
“It happened and it was not safe there any more, so everybody just had to leave their things and flee,” Lual-Acuil said. “I was able to eat, but I’m sure it was hard for my family. My mom and dad always found a way to be able to help me. I was so young and I just remember a little bit because I was moving around so much.”
While Lual-Acuil’s father stayed behind in Sudan to work for the government, the rest of the family moved to a refugee camp in Uganda for five years before relocating to Perth in Western Australia. His mother was able to find a job and help put her children through school with help from his father.
It was during prep school at Kingsway Christian College in Darch, Australia when Lual-Acuil played basketball for the first time in 11th grade.
That led Lual-Acuil to a basketball scholarship to Neosho County Community College in Chanute, Kan., and finally to Baylor.
After sitting out last year due to a heart issue, the 7-0 Lual-Acuil’s presence in the middle has been a big reason why the Bears are 14-0 and No. 2 in the country heading into Saturday’s 6 p.m. game against Oklahoma State at the Ferrell Center.
Watching Lual-Acuil star for one of the best teams in college basketball, it’s easy to forget that he’s only played the game for five seasons.
“He makes a huge difference and not just because he’s 7-0,” said Baylor coach Scott Drew. “He not only blocks shots, but the shots he alters as well have a great impact in the game and that gets us in transition. It gets us easy baskets on the other end and allows us to be more aggressive on the perimeter knowing you’ve got a real good shot blocker on the back side to protect things.”
Lual-Acuil takes a lot of pride in being Baylor’s last line of defense at the rim. Baylor’s guards know they can extend farther out on the perimeter to defend teams because Lual-Acuil is such a factor in the paint.
Lual-Acuil ranks third nationally with 3.57 blocks per game and has put up his best numbers in the Bears’ biggest games. He recorded seven blocks in Baylor’s win over then-No. 4 Oregon, and six apiece against No. 9 Louisville and No. 7 Xavier.
While his first goal is to make opponents change their shots, he gets a thrill out of blocking them.
“Most of the time it’s not about blocking the shot, it’s about protecting the rim and trying to change the shot,” Lual-Acuil said. “As many shots as I block, there are as many as I change. I want our guys to be able to count on me to pressure guys more so they can play defense more relaxed knowing if they do break down I have their backs and I can help them out.”
Lual-Acuil takes it personally when someone scores over him.
“If someone scores on Jo at the rim you can see it hurts his soul,” said Baylor guard Jake Lindsey. “He gets mad. That’s a good thing.”
While shot blocking is Lual-Acuil’s most visible contribution, he’s also become a productive scorer who is averaging 11.1 points per game and ranks second on the team with 7.6 rebounds per game. His 62.5 field goal percentage ranks second in the Big 12, and he isn’t afraid to occasionally shoot outside as he’s nailed four of 10 3-pointers.
“Jo is an offensive threat and a defensive threat, and he provides rim protection that allows them to extend their zone,” said Oklahoma State coach Brad Underwood. “Jo has helped them in both man and zone, and gives them a different look. It’s very difficult to score on them and he’s a big reason.”
Lual-Acuil has come a long way since he showed up at Neosho County Community College four years ago. Coombs has brought in numerous players from Australia over the years and could see the big man had potential.
“You can’t teach size and length, and he looked very skilled to me,” Coombs said. “He definitely had the ability, but the difference between him and other guys is his work ethic. You could definitely tell Jo was a motivated young man who was always in the gym. Sometimes it would be just me and my two boys and Jo in the gym working out.”
Lual-Acuil was living in Melbourne, Australia, before moving to Chanute, Kan. It was a major culture and climate shock.
“Neosho is in a small town of about 5,000 people and Melbourne has about 4.6 million,” Lual-Acuil said. “The biggest thing was me leaving Australia in the summer, and when I got to Kansas and it was snowing. Of course, I had never seen snow before. I was shocked. It was really cold.”
Weighing just 185 pounds, Lual-Acuil put on 20 pounds after getting to junior college. Though Lual-Acuil possessed a good outside shot, Coombs convinced him that he needed to use his height inside.
“He was a typical big guy who wanted to be a guard and liked to shoot the 3,” Coombs said. “He figured out he could be pretty darn good if he moved to the 5, and had two great years with us.”
Lual-Acuil averaged 11.8 points, 9.3 rebounds and 2.8 blocks as a freshman in 2013-14 and really exploded as a sophomore. He averaged 20.1 points, 11.2 rebounds and 4.7 blocks and was named the Jayhawk Conference defensive player of the year.
“Jo did a lot of good things and was good for our system and what we do,” Coombs said. “We played zone and he was a 7-0 presence. So when people drove to the basket, they’d get nervous and he’d block the shot or alter them. He’s our all-time leading rebounder, but as a sophomore he was able to score the ball and take it to the basket.”
After signing with Baylor, Lual-Acuil hoped to make an immediate impact last season, but he had to sit out due to the heart issue. He used the year to strengthen his frame to 220 pounds and learned how to play against Division I players in practice.
“First of all he got a lot stronger with (Baylor strength coach) Charlie Melton,” Drew said. “When you’re around players like we have you’re going to improve in practice. When guys come back in the summer, when Isaiah Austin works out, you’re going against other tall players who are athletic and skilled. You’re also seeing the competitiveness and the energy and the crowds and all that goes into Big 12 basketball.”
Lual-Acuil was thrilled when he was cleared and emerged even more determined to have a big junior year.
“It was probably the toughest year I’ve had in my life,” Lual-Acuil said. “It was also a blessing in disguise. I could sit down and watch the game and have everything slow down for me. I could see what the Big 12 is like and get strong in the weight room and get better in different aspects of the game. Through my faith in God I was able to talk to the coaches and my family and my teammates helped me a lot. We prayed and I knew that God had a plan.”
Playing with great passion from the start, Lual-Acuil averaged 10.7 points, 10 rebounds and 5.3 blocks in Baylor’s first three games against Oral Roberts, Oregon and Florida Gulf Coast. He’s continued to deliver similar numbers to help Baylor go unbeaten through 14 games.
His teammates love the energy Lual-Acuil brings to the team and the playfulness and joy he brings to every practice.
“He likes to have fun,” said Baylor forward Ish Wainright. “I’ve never seen a player and a coach playfight as much as him and Coach (Jerome) Tang. Coach Tang will say something to him at practice and Jo will run at him and pick him up and put him over his shoulder.”
Lual-Acuil is a product of the journey that took him from Sudan to Uganda to Australia to Neosho County Community College and finally to Baylor. He’s taken a tougher road than most of his teammates but he’s happy to be a major factor for the nation’s No. 2 team.
“It’s very exciting playing with the guys,” Lual-Acuil said. “We love each other and it’s just fun being out there with them. Just being able to win with them is a great experience.”