The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

Dembele brings impressive background to Iowa basketball

First-year forward Ladji Dembele can speak five languages and play all five positions on the court.
Carly Schrum
Iowa Forward Ladji Dembele steals the ball during a men’s basketball game between Iowa and Alabama State at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Friday, Nov. 10, 2023. The Hawkeyes defeated the Hornets 98-67. Dembele had four rebounds against the Hornets.

Ladji Dembele has embarked on a unique journey in life that led him to his commitment to the Iowa men’s basketball team.

The first-year forward hails from Newark, New Jersey, but came into the Hawkeye program speaking five languages: Bambara, Soninke, French, Spanish, and English — each a representation of his diverse background.

Dembele spent most of his childhood in Mali — a big country in northwest Africa just below Algeria — where he first learned to speak Bambara and Soninke as well as French in school.

When Dembele was 13 years old, his family made the move from Africa to Spain. There, he added a fourth language to his arsenal with Spanish. After four years there, Dembele again moved, this time to the U.S. where he learned to speak English.

Initially a soccer player, the 6-foot-8, 250-pounder made the jump to basketball instead when he realized he was “too big and not fast enough” to continue the sport he grew up with.

The switch paid off.

Dembele began his basketball career playing at St. Benedict’s Preparatory High School in Newark, New Jersey. There, he began gathering collegiate interest during his senior season as scouts recognized his potential to score at all three levels and pose a threat on both sides of the floor.

That season, Dembele averaged 16 points, 12 rebounds, 1.5 steals, 1.3 blocks, and 1.1 assists on a 52 percent clip from the field and 36 percent clip from beyond the arc.

Dembele also boasted an impressive resume beyond New Jersey, playing for the New York Rens of the Nike EYBL circuit and the Mali U-19 team in the 2021 FIBA World Cup.

Dembele amassed offers from Power Five teams such as Seton Hall, Pittsburgh, DePaul, Rutgers, Xavier, Wake Forest, and Iowa. He cut his list down to the Scarlet Knights, Demon Deacons, and Hawkeyes before ultimately committing to the Black and Gold.

Dembele loved the way Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery utilizes his men on the floor.

“I used to watch Keegan Murray, the way that he plays, so I really like their style [at Iowa],” he said. “That was basically why I chose Iowa.

In fact, McCaffery has always seen the potential in Dembele.

“He’s always been a good three-point shooter,” McCaffery said at media day. “You look at him and think, ‘Well, he’s a bruising power forward,’ and he can play that way. He can back down and get traffic rebounds. He’s a really good passer as well. He’s big and strong, but he’s always had a really good perimeter skillset.”

Through the first six games this season, though, the first-year big is molding into a role at the next level, averaging 3.7 points, 2.3 rebounds, 0.7 assists, 0.5 steals and 0.2 blocks on 53/50/50 shooting splits in 12.7 minutes per game.

Dembele’s best game came in a hostile road contest against Creighton where he showed a big glimpse of his potential: He put up eight points, two rebounds, and two assists on 3-for-4 shooting from the field as he knocked down both of his three-point attempts in 14 minutes of confident play.

“It gives us a lot of flexibility because we can move him [around the floor],” McCaffery said of Dembele’s versatile skill set. “We could play him at the five if we have to, but he’s primarily a forward that can stretch the floor, and he runs very well … He’s someone we felt could really be special, and he’s proven to be that.”

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About the Contributors
Chris Meglio
Chris Meglio, Sports Reporter
Chris Meglio is a first year student at the University of Iowa studying a double major in sport studies and journalism. He will be working as a sports journalist for The Daily Iowan covering women's volleyball for the fall sports season.
Carly Schrum
Carly Schrum, Photojournalist
Carly is a freshman majoring in Journalism and Mass Communication and potentially majoring in sustainability. She works at the Daily Iowan as a photojournalist.