Just a few years ago, the perception of Luol Deng was very different.
In Chicago, the small forward was regarded as, at best, an afterthought or trade bait, but to most fans energized by the arrival of Derrick Rose and emergence of Joakim Noah, the longest-tenured player on the Bulls was often viewed as replaceable, overpaid and perhaps worst of all, brittle.
Now, heading into his ninth season with his first All-Star berth under his belt, the product of the newly-formed South Sudan is widely considered the most indispensable player on the squad. Not the best -- obviously that honor goes to the talented Rose, whose unique game can't be mimicked, though backups C.J. Watson and John Lucas III did an admirable job in playing the former league MVP's role on the court and even coming close to matching his production -- but no other Bulls player is capable of providing what Deng brings to the table.
"Same thing as last year and the year before," Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said when asked about Deng's role after Thursday's practice at the Berto Center. "Just about everything.
"I don't think you can ever measure how important he is to our team. His statistics don't reflect how important he is. He makes our starters function well, he makes our bench function well. He does so many little things to help you win. He's tough-minded, he's going to make big plays for you, he knows how to read what's happening in the game, he makes big hustle plays. The guy, he's a great player and probably hasn't gotten the credit that he deserves."
Deng is Thibodeau's safety blanket, a workhorse who plays through pain and logs significant minutes on the court, leading the league in minutes per game last season after playing the most total minutes in the NBA the previous campaign.
It's become commonplace to see Deng play over 40 minutes per night -- even in the preseason, his workload has been heavy -- and somewhat ironic, given both his prior undeserved reputation and on the opposite end of the spectrum, the hubbub surrounding whether or not he should have offseason surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left wrist, an injury that briefly sidelined him last season.
Ultimately, Deng opted against any procedure and while there were times when it clearly affected him, he battled through the discomfort for the remainder of the campaign and despite the organization wishing he sit out the Olympics, in which he represented host country Great Britain (a gesture that meant much more than simply playing basketball, if you know anything about his journey), he arrived at Bulls training camp, following a vacation throughout Africa, without going under the knife, an experience he's been through earlier in his career.
So far, so good, said his coach.
"I haven't seen it. He's aggressively driving the ball, cutting. He's playing his game, guarding well, rebounding in traffic, coming up with loose balls. So, I haven't seen any of that. He says he's feeling great. He told us that prior to going to the Olympics, that he was feeling a lot better, so we felt that he would be recovered when camp started," Thibodeau observed.
"He's a tough-minded guy. That injury is more common in hockey. There are a lot of hockey players that have it, that never have the surgery, so he felt confident. He did a lot of research on it, he felt comfortable with his decision and you see guys, tough-minded guys like Kobe Bryant, who have played with similar injuries. But Luol is as tough as they come."
When asked his favorite question -- "How's the wrist," something he was tired of hearing as soon as he got hurt -- after Thursday's practice, Deng said, "Knock on wood," before detailing his thought process that led to declining surgery.
"I had the injury before and for some reason, maybe because it was my first time when I first had it, it felt a lot worse than the second time. The second time that I had it, I asked the doctors a lot of questions. I never really lost any range-of-motion or strength. I just had pain, but as the year went on, I had my mind set on having the surgery. As the year went on, it just felt a lot stronger. I stuck with my rehab, kept doing my rehab and until now, I still keep up with my rehab and the maintenance, and staying on top of it, and it's been good so far, so I've just got to continue with that and see how it goes," he said.
"I haven't had any pain on it, so I haven't gone back to the doctors. They would ask me how it feels and I would let them know, but if I have anything--like I said before--if I have anything where it's troubling me or anything, I'll go and get treatment on it."
With Rose out to begin the season and cadre of newcomers replacing familiar faces, it would seem that the onus is on Deng to carry the team, another irony, as it was frequently said in the past that he wasn't enough of a scorer to be a secondary offensive option for Rose.
But he's repeatedly insisted that not only will he continue to stay in his lane, it's expected that his teammates follow suit.
"I don't think we have those guys to worry about, to be honest with you. We have guys that have been here, that know we've played without Derrick before. We've played without Jo, we've played without Boozer, I missed two weeks last year and we never really had anyone try to do much or go out of character, and if that happened, I think we'll tell the guy the right way. We've got enough guys, good enough, that we'll win games collectively, not individually," Deng explained.
"The past two years, I've become a better leader. I've got to do a good job of being an even better leader. I thought last year, it was a little bit easier to lead guys because we knew what we had to do. We've got a lot of new guys and the guys that have been here, we do things certain ways and the guys that have been here so far, the new guys, they're totally committed to it. That's the step I've got to take. I've got to be a better leader, not just in practice, but preparing for the game and everything."
Deng has developed into a jack-of-all-trades type on the court, alternately tasked with the toughest defensive assignment on the wing, utilized as a secondary ballhandler and playmaker, responsible for both being an outside threat and rebounding presence and often in a perpetual-motion style, as he slashes with the ball in his hands, cuts to the basket without, chases offensive players and sprints the floor in transition.
It's one thing for a high-energy reserve to take on those responsibilities in short bursts, but Deng is virtually always on the court, functioning as a liaison between the starters and the second unit, of which he's the go-to guy and thus, in the words of Taj Gibson, "an honorary member of the 'Bench Mob.'"
"I play a lot. I expect to play the same," Deng acknowledged slyly, stating the obvious and drawing some laughs. "But this year is different. I start at the three, I spend a lot of time at the three. Depending on how the year's going or how the lineup is with the other team, I might end up playing the four some. Depending on the lineup, who's on the floor, most of the time I might end up guarding the two. So, I've just got to be ready for whatever is needed at that time.
"My strength, since I've been in this league, is my conditioning, I've always been blessed to be able to play high minutes. I've just got to stay on top of the little things. Getting my treatment, stretching, just recovery-wise. Being ready for 48 minutes a game, not really preparing myself for less than that," he added. "There's times when I get tired. The schedule last year didn't help me at all and I thought there were days where I really felt it last year. The year before, honestly, I thought the whole year, I was great and now the schedule's back to normal. I'm really happy with that and hopefully, it'll be like the first year.
"I've gotten a lot better about resting on off days, just knowing my body, knowing when I'm fatigued, knowing when to get the rest and everything. But also, I think the role is different. I think now I have a mindset of just every game I play as hard as I can and I'm mature enough to live with what I do in that game. I don't go in the game with just a one-track mind of doing one thing. I just go and play hard. At the end of the day, just winning the game and however it looked or how I did, I just go back to that," the Duke product went on to say.
"Honestly, it makes my job and it makes basketball a lot more fun and easier because I just go out on the floor and just play hard. Even now, the first few preseason games that we've had, I haven't shot that many times, but I was able to get to the line just by playing hard and I think that's what I've got to do throughout the year."
The same way Deng and Thibodeau have maintained that the Bulls don't need any individual player to overcompensate for Rose's absence, the coach isn't trying to groom any player for Deng's role. Thibodeau recognized Deng's versatility upon arriving in Chicago, cementing their relationship instantly and because the player and team have thrived so much during the coach's tenure, Thibodeau would prefer to test Deng's limits and not change the successful formula.
"All players have different strengths and weaknesses, so I don't want anyone to try to be Luol. I just want them to be themselves. Luol was a big part of the second unit last year and he'll be a big part of the second unit this year. They haven't played a lot together yet, but when Luol's on the floor, that's one of his great strengths," Thibodeau said. "His strength is that he can make whatever unit he's with function well and so, once he plays more with them, I think their productivity will go up."
Deng has seemingly perfected his own personal algorithm: International play over the summer, briefly gallivanting around the world before training camp, then feverishly working himself into tip-top shape so that he can withstand Thibodeau's unwillingness to remove him from games.
The phrase "system player" is sometimes used as an euphemism, but for Deng, who craves structure on the court, it fits, meaning that playing for a program, as opposed to simply working out and playing pickup games, is his preferred method for offseason development.
"When you talk about, 'He played in the Olympics, he did this,' it sounds crazy, but if you look back at the Olympics, counting the friendly games and everything, I think I played 10 games. If I wasn't playing in the Olympics, I would be working out and playing pick-up, and maybe playing three, four, I don't know how many games a day if you count them up. So, at the end of the day, if I wasn't playing in the Olympics, I would be running just as hard. But I like doing that because not only am I working with coaches, working on my game, but I'm getting treatment, I'm around trainers all the time. Everything stays the same routine," Deng revealed.
"It's a long summer," he continued, laughing. "It really is. We lost in the playoffs in the first round and I had a month of just doing nothing. Then, I got with the Great Britain national team and I was with the team training, and after I got finished with the team, I had about another month and a half, two months of rest. I spent time with family, I went and spent time in Africa, went to eight different countries. I felt like I had a lot of time. I'm not the kind of guy that's going to take the whole summer off. I've never done that and I don't think I will do it until I retire."
Another revelation: Deng has reached out to former Bulls players and used them as a resource to improve his game.
"I talk a lot more now with Scottie Pippen the last four or five years and he's helped me a lot. It started with talking to him about my three-pointers. Scottie didn't shoot many when he first came in and it started with just finding spots where I can be consistent at, so I started with the corners and as I got comfortable, I started expanding. But every now and then, I have a question," Deng said.
"I was actually talking to Toni Kukoc Thursday morning and I was just picking his brain, what he did shooting-wise, routine-wise and stuff like that. But it's great to have those guys around because they've done it and they were the best at it, so it's good to get info from them."
Still, despite his work ethic and changing his perception as a player recently, one gets the feeling that Deng believes both himself and the Bulls occasionally get short-changed in the face of their show-and-prove performances.
When asked about the team's opponent Friday evening, Central Division rival Indiana, and how the Pacers are expected to wrest control of the division, due to Rose's absence, Deng claimed the slight didn't bother him, though his words seem to say otherwise.
"Nah, not really. I've said it before: Individually, I've never been credited with anything. I've never went into a season with people saying, 'he's an All-Star from the start, or 'he's going to have this year or he's going to have that year,' and that's how we've been as a team. Every year, even if Derrick was here, they would be saying we don't have enough scoring or there would be something. Every year, there's something and it got to a point where it really doesn't matter," he said, when asked about the Bulls' final preseason opponent.
"I think even Indiana, if you talk to them about being told they're going to win the division, it's still not handed to you. You show up the first day and you've still got to win ballgames, and it's a long year. Things happen. We've got Derrick out now, but before you know it, as the year goes on, his rehab goes well and everything, and we're playing well, we have Derrick back and we're the team that everyone's talking about. So, it's a long year and a lot of things can happen, so we're not listening to any of that.
"As a competitor, you've got to take what you hear and find a way to motivate you, not fall into it. If I was told I was the greatest player," Deng continued, before displaying his sense of humor, a side of him which was rarely shown to the media in the past. "Which a lot of people say, by the way -- by my family when jokingly questioned by a reporter about the source of that claim and I've got a lot of family; I'm African -- but once you get comfortable with what's being said, then you're not a great competitor. I think whether it's good or bad, you always find a way to not let it get to you and just keep going with what you do."