Aguek Arop is royalty in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska.
The Omaha World-Herald honors the five best high school boys and girls basketball players in the state each year by hosting them for a themed photoshoot with the athletes wearing their team’s uniforms. Arop received the honor twice. The second year, the group posed in front of Joslyn Castle for a photo titled “The Royal Court.”
In high school, he was nothing short of a phenom. Arop started playing basketball in the seventh grade. Only two years later, the premier university in the state, the University of Nebraska Lincoln, offered him a scholarship. He gave his pledge at the start of his sophomore year, becoming the youngest player ever to commit to the school.
Despite recovering from a season-ending injury that cost him his sophomore season, Arop’s junior year was one for the ages. Along with Jayson Tatum, Lonzo Ball, Zach Collins, De’Aaron Fox, and 45 others, Arop was named the Gatorade Player of the Year for his state. He led his school to a 28-1 record and a state title averaging 15.9 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and 1.1 blocked shots.
In Arop’s senior year, he was the only returner from the championship team and still led his squad to the semifinals of the state tournament. He finished the season averaging 17.1 points and 9.8 rebounds, just five total boards short of averaging a double-double. Only six years after picking up the game for the first time, he had grown into one of the best players in Nebraska state history.
Perhaps due to his personality, learning the game at a relatively late age, or a truly unique skill set, Arop was a unicorn on the court in high school. He was not the typical high school star who would shoot 25 times a game, hustle only in stretches, and use his platform to improve his brand. Arop was about the team and school first.
He brought that same unique playing style to SDSU as a true freshman. Fans and coaches alike were not sure what to make of the Sudanese native. Standing 6’6,” he profiled as a small forward until his elite athleticism and quickness showed he was at home guarding the fastest players on the court. His length and strength, likewise, allowed him to cover and rebound against much bigger players. With exceptional effort and speed, he made plays from all areas of the court that defied convention. No matter where he played, the results were usually the same, winning. His impact went far beyond his pedestrian numbers. Unsurprisingly, he averaged 20 minutes per game in the final 11 games of the season.
More incredible than his style of play was that he competed through a significant hip injury, enduring constant pain to stay on the court. Surgery at the end of the year cost him precious development time, but he was ready to play by the opening game of the next season. Throughout the following year, on a team that finished 30-2, Arop played sparingly, even missing a month of action at the end of the non-conference season.
Year three on the Mesa began exactly as his career arc suggested. He earned his first career start against UCLA, a team that would make a run to the Final Four. Arop was a difference-maker for the Aztecs. He exposed the Bruins’ lack of toughness, shut down their best players, and added key plays that prevented UCLA from getting back in the game.
“Life has not been easy for AG,” SDSU David Velasquez told EVT in an exclusive interview. “He’s always found a way to put the next step in front of the next step and get to the top of the mountain wherever he’s been. He’s been incredibly good for us when he’s been on the floor. He started a lot of games for us last year.”
Arop started seven games for the Aztecs, and it would have been more except for another health issue–vertigo. The mental toll of the condition that has no symptoms one day but is completely debilitating the next wore on the Omaha native. Frequently, he would be healthy during shoot-around on game day only to not be ready for tip-off. On a team that finished the year ranked #16 in the nation, there is little question that a healthy Arop would have propelled SDSU into the top 10 and a much higher seed in the NCAA tournament. Though his presence was missed on the court, Arop still helped the team win the Mountain West regular-season and tournament championships with what he did off the hardwood.
“His smile is so contagious,” Velasquez said. “His energy, his vibe, his enthusiasm, it permeates through a room, through a locker room, through our team, through our film room, through our bus trips. He was a guy last year. Even though he was wearing a mask, you could tell was always smiling and happy. He is exactly how you would want everyone on your team to be like. He’s the ultimate winner. He doesn’t care about anything else. He’s a true ‘the team, the team, the team’ guy and separates himself from so many others in this world by being someone that’s incredibly selfless.”
As the team is about to begin the 2021-2022 season, there is no substantial update on Arop’s health except that SDSU is again showing why it is a special place. In a day and age when the bottom line of winning and losing aggressively pushes out all other motivations and priorities, Brian Dutcher, his staff, and the team as a whole are allowing Arop space to make whatever decision is best for him. It is the kind of loyalty sorely missing in today’s world, and it is in stark contrast to what other programs have made commonplace.
After Arop committed to Nebraska at the beginning of his sophomore year of high school, he was completely locked into becoming a Cornhusker. He “bled red and white,” as the saying goes. There was no more loyal recruit anywhere in the nation. Late in the recruiting cycle his senior year, Nebraska tried to leverage that loyalty. Needing a guard, they signed a player, putting them one over the scholarship limit. They pulled Arop’s scholarship and asked him to go to prep school for a year. They gambled since Arop had not been actively building relationships with other schools, he would be unlikely to land a high major offer. Nebraska lost the bet. Arop de-committed.
SDSU’s strength to value people over winning should not be overlooked. There is so much pressure to win and win now, Nebraska could hardly be blamed for their smart, calculated move. Likewise, if the Aztecs’ coaching staff tried to hurry Arop into making a quicker decision, justifying it because he is taking up a spot on the roster, no one would bat an eye.
“We love AG. He will definitely be with the team. We just don’t know what role or what capacity,” Velasquez said. “We’re just happy that he’s happy, and that’s the best thing to say. We are here for AG, and we just want AG to be happy more than anything else.”
When a coaching staff speaks of their players in that light and backs it up with their actions, it ultimately does pay off on the court. SDSU has not had a lot of departing transfers. Trey Pulliam and Joshua Tomaic are back for a second senior year instead of earning a living playing basketball overseas. The team added four transfers – one willing to sit out a year – because they want to be part of the SDSU basketball family.
“AG, that’s my brother,” Adam Seiko told EVT. “It’s been tough to see all the things he’s had to go through these past few years in the season, out of the season. … His presence is so needed here in this program. I’m just glad the coaches, and (the players) as well, are giving him time and space to do what he wants and take time away from the game, but at the same time, he’s in the gym every day with us. He’s lifting with us. He’s helping on scout team. He still has his game. He’s still very good. He can still do everything that we want him to do on the court. There’s also a mental aspect, and he has trouble dealing with it. I think, sooner or later, he’ll be back to his normal self, and he’ll start hooping again.”
Hopefully, Aztec nation will have the opportunity to hear Arop’s name called at Viejas Arena this season. Still, his absence on the court should not overshadow his presence off it and what he means to everyone in the program. The Omaha World-Herald’s “Royal Court” photo from his senior season in high school could not have been more fitting. In everything he has done at SDSU, from fighting through injury, playing for his teammates, and showing wisdom and character beyond his years, Aguek Arop has acted like a king.