South Sudan’s national team is once again making history. After qualifying for the 2023 FIBA World Cup, the first World Cup berth in the team’s history, South Sudan will also represent Africa in the upcoming Olympics for the first time ever following a 101-78 victory over Angola on Saturday.
Per a release from the Olympics website, the 23-point victory meant South Sudan’s direct competition for an automatic Olympic spot, Egypt, needed to defeat New Zealand by 23 or more points. Egypt, however, fell 88-86 and thus, South Sudan is on to the Olympics.
It’s a massive victory for the world’s youngest country (2011) — the country’s basketball federation has been around for less than a decade, according to the Olympics release. As NBC Sports notes, South Sudan entered the World Cup ranked 62nd in the world but still managed to qualify for the 12-team Olympic tournament in Paris next year. With the win, South Sudan became the lowest-ranked team to qualify for an Olympic men’s tournament since 2004, per NBC.
The Bright Stars, South Sudan’s team name, were the lone African team (of five) to win three of five games.
Bulls guard Carlik Jones concluded a stellar World Cup run in Saturday’s victory, lighting up the stat sheet with 26 points and a record-tying 15 assists. Jones, the 2022/23 G League Player of the Year, averaged 20.4 points and 10.4 assists in five games and, according to the official FIBA World Cup Twitter (link), he’s the first player to register 10 or more assists in three separate games in a single tournament.
On Thursday, the 6’1″ guard was one rebound shy of the first triple-double in FIBA World Cup history in a win over the Philippines. Jones is under contract through 2025 with the Bulls, though both seasons of his contract are fully non-guaranteed.
Even though Jones is the only active NBA player on the roster, South Sudan has a bevy of connections to the league, starting with the president of the country’s basketball federation, 15-year NBA veteran Luol Deng.
When Deng took over in 2019, the Bright Stars were in a much different place.
“Three years ago, when Luol Deng took over, became the president of the South Sudan basketball federation, we were starting in Nairobi, literally playing on concrete floor,” team captain Kuany Kuany said to NBC Sports. “I never thought that we would be here.”
ESPN’s Brian Windhorst recently detailed South Sudan’s ascent, detailing how Deng personally funded the program and sought after players who had South Sudanese heritage. Deng’s own family fled South Sudan for Britain when he was a child, per Windhorst, and all these years later, the team is led by refugees and the children of refugees from a country that was subject to a series of civil wars.
“It’s an unbelievable story. It’s an underdog story that not just for the South Sudanese, not just for Africa, but for the rest of the world,” Deng said, according to Windhorst. “It’s a feel good story that [a] majority of people can relate to. It’s such a unique achievement because it’s beyond basketball.”
Deng tapped former NBA guard and current Rockets assistant Royal Ivey as head coach, and he led the team to an 11-1 record in the African qualifying tournament to reach the World Cup.
Jones’ record-tying performance in the win over Angola is just one of many impressive outings from members of the team. Forward Wenyen Gabriel, who played last season with the Lakers, put up a 15-point, 10-rebound double-double in the win. Former Sixers guard Marial Shayok scored 18 points while Nuni Omot, who spent last season’s training camp with the Knicks before playing in the G League, scored 17.
Additionally, 7’2″ 16-year-old Khaman Maluach – one of the top potential prospects in the 2025 NBA draft class, according to Windhorst – added five points and four rebounds.