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Peter Jok’s Path to Big Ten Superstardom

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Iowa Hawkeyes senior guard Peter Jok began playing basketball at a young age because he liked eating at McDonald’s.

Jok recalls being in fifth grade when he first seriously thought about playing basketball. He moved to the United States from Sudan at a young age and didn’t know much about the sport at first.

He says he was terrible when he first started playing. In fact, the only reason why he began playing was because his friends were on a team and he just wanted to hang out with them. He didn’t have many other friends at the time.

During one of his games, an AAU coach by the name of Mike Nixon watched him play. While Jok described his play as terrible in that game, Nixon told him that he had potential to play basketball.

Nixon asked Jok to come try out for his team. After talking it over with his mother, he finally decided to play. After the first practice with his new team, Nixon took Jok and his teammates to McDonald’s. Jok went back home and told his inquiring mother that he didn’t like practice after the first day.

But Jok went back to practice, and another trip to McDonald’s soon followed. After the second trip to McDonald’s, he was asked again by his mother if he liked practice any better. He responded by saying that he still didn’t like practice, but added that he would play again.

“I was like, ‘I’m going to go back just to see if he’s going to take us to McDonald’s again,’” Jok told Basketball Insiders. “I went back and he took us to McDonald’s again so I stayed on the team so we could go to McDonald’s again. That’s how I pretty much got into basketball.”

It was a good thing he was rewarded with all of those trips to McDonald’s because he has turned out to be a pretty good basketball player for the Hawkeyes. Jok has become perhaps one of the best scorers in the country, one that doesn’t get nearly as much recognition as he should.

With seniors like Jarrod Uthoff, Anthony Clemmons, Mike Gesell and Adam Woodbury no longer in the picture at Iowa, Jok was given the ultimate green light this season and his production has taken off. He’s averaging 20.1 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.2 steals per game. He currently leads the Big Ten in scoring and is second in three-pointers made.

Jok has scored at least 30 points five times this year, which is tied with Washington’s Markelle Fultz for the most by a player from a Power 5 conference. He also ranks fourth among all players from Power 5 conferences in scoring, at 20.1 points per game.

He scored a career-high 42 points and six rebounds in a loss against Memphis on November 26. It was the first time in 40 years that an Iowa player scored 42 points in a single game. He is one of only nine players this season to score at least 42 points and six rebounds in a game.

“I expected [to lead the Big Ten in scoring],” Jok said. “I’ve always been a scorer growing up. I knew once I got that ultimate green light and be the leader of the team, I knew that I was going to be able to score a lot and lead the Big Ten in scoring.

“Last year, we had four seniors so I had to kind of play my role. This year, Coach [McCaffery] wanted me to step up and lead the team in scoring pretty much. I also stepped up my rebounding. I think I’m leading the team in rebounding.”

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As Jok enjoys the most successful run of his young career, he’s also had to face some adversity off of the court. Jok was born in Sudan, which is one of seven Muslim-majority countries whose citizens were banned from entering the United States under President Donald Trump’s executive order, which was signed on January 27.

Under President Trump’s order, citizens from those seven countries—Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen—were barred from entering the United States for 90 days, the admission of all refugees was suspended for four months and Syrian refugees were barred indefinitely.

Since his order was signed, several district court judges across the country have, to varying degrees, limited the travel ban and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals later rejected President Trump’s attempt to reinstate it. The Ninth Circuit Court held, among other things, that the government failed to establish that it had a likelihood of winning on the merits if the case were to be fully litigated and that there was not enough compelling evidence that warranted reinstating the ban in the interest of national security.

Jok was saddened to hear about the travel ban, and he still has family back in Sudan that were affected by it. Some of his family were unable to return to the United States, while some already in the United States would have been impacted by the order.

“It was kind of distracting for a little bit,” Jok said. “When I first heard that, the first thing that came to mind was if my mom was going to be able to come back. I was kind of freaking out about that.”

Jok and his immediate family are naturalized citizens and were unaffected by the order, but they know a number of families that were directly impacted by it. As Jok views the United States as his home, he’s saddened to see it affect so many people that he knows. For now, he wants to speak on behalf of those who may not have the opportunity to do so.

“It was really sad so that’s when I really found I had to say something since I’m one of the leaders of my community,” Jok said. “I wanted my voice to be heard and I also wanted to speak up for other people who want to say something and may not be heard. I wanted to use my power as a leader in my community to say something.”

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During the early years of his playing career, Jok would work out all of the time with Nixon (who is now his legal guardian). The two would focus on several areas of his game, but they really focused most on his shooting and low-post game.

“We went to the gym every day,” Jok said. “He worked on my shot and my low-post game. I kept feeling like I was getting better and then in seventh grade, I was like murdering guys. That’s when I realized I could be really good in basketball.”

While it’s easy to look at his numbers this season and see that he can shoot, he doesn’t play as your prototypical guard at Iowa. He’s proven that he can play both inside and outside. As he grew up learning post moves, he also learned how to play as a guard and can play both ways depending on the matchup.

“He expanded his game and was always in the gym,” former Iowa teammate Trey Dickerson told Basketball Insiders. “Everyone thought he was just a shooter, but he proved that he can put it on the floor and make plays for others.”

In a recent game against Indiana, Jok proved that he’s capable of working in the post and getting to the free throw line. Against smaller competition, Jok effectively posted up his opponents and also proved to be successful in getting to the line. He broke Don Nelson’s 55-year-old school record for most free throws in a game after converting on 22-of-23 from the line that night.

He finished with 35 points against the Hoosiers.

“I didn’t know I shot that many free throws, really,” Jok said. “I was just mad at myself for missing that one free throw but other than that I didn’t know I shot that many free throws. When I was in the [postgame] interview for ESPN, that girl said that I broke the record for the free throws. I was more happy for the win, anyways. I didn’t care about all of that.”

Iowa (17-13, 9-8 Big Ten) has one game remaining in the regular season on Sunday against Penn State before turning its attention to next week’s Big Ten Tournament. The Hawkeyes’ only chance at sneaking into the NCAA Tournament would be by winning the Big Ten Tournament.

The Hawkeyes have won three games in a row heading into Sunday’s matchup and have posted two recent wins over ranked opponents, including a 59-57 win last night over No. 22 Wisconsin. They’re beginning to play well at the right time and could present a tough matchup in the Big Ten Tournament.

While Jok’s time in a Hawkeyes jersey is winding down, the next step in his career will begin shortly thereafter. He’ll enter June’s NBA draft with the hope of hearing his name called. He has been an underdog for his entire life, and he’d love nothing more to continue to prove those who may doubt him wrong.

Jok is currently ranked No. 16 in DraftExpress’ senior rankings and is currently projected by NBADraft.net to be drafted at No. 56. While it remains to be seen if he’ll be drafted, several players before him have proven that hard work and determination goes a long way toward making it into the NBA.

If that’s the case, Jok seems like a safe bet to one day play in the NBA.

Make sure to follow Basketball Insiders on Twitter at @BBallInsiders.

About Cody Taylor

Cody Taylor

Cody Taylor is an NBA writer in his fourth season with Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and NCAA out of Orlando and Miami.