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Back at site of 'lowest point,' Deng now at peace

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Back at site of 'lowest point,' Deng now at peace

BOSTON Back at the site of what could have been, Luol Deng is now at peace. Still, although recently named a first-time All-Star, the Bulls small forward is over the past missing the epic 2009 Bulls-Celtics first-round playoff series due to injury but hell never forget.

I think when I had the stress fracture and had to watch one of the best series Boston against us that Ive ever seen and to know that Im on that team, but I couldnt dress up and play, and then sitting there and reading everything, the papers, the fans and everyone saying that I wasnt really hurt, which is, to me, the lowest point and the craziest thing that I ever had to go through. To hear people saying things like that, he said.

I think thats the first time I really went through something like that and I think it really helped me a lot in bouncing back and just knowing how things were. Before, I felt like I was kind of loved by everyone. Thats how I really felt. Through my whole life, I never really experienced that if you want to call it hate or whatever it was until that point and sitting there for seven games, to me, thats the toughest thing Ive ever done through my whole career.

However, as much as the criticism stung, one thing Deng didnt pay attention to was the constantly swirling trade rumors, instead choosing to focus on improving his game.

Thats the one thing, my whole career, Ive kind of controlled. Ive never really allowed the trade rumors or anything else really get to me. There were times when I wasnt happy, but I always believed things would change somehow, he said. But I was never really caught up in, If I leave, what happens then? Whatever I cant control, I kind of allowed that and just left it alone. I kind of really focused on, How do I get better as a player?

I remember I just spent a lot of time in the gym. Went in the gym in the morning, took my lunch with me, ate there and then worked out again, then went home, Deng recalled when asked how he overcame the criticism and reinvented himself as a player. I really just stayed in the gym because I didnt want to be anywhere else.

It paid off. Chicago was an eighth seed the following season also, but after the ouster of Vinny Del Negro, now with the Clippers, Deng came through with one of his best all-around campaigns last seasons, under the direction of novice NBA head coach Tom Thibodeau.

I think the whole coaching staff Coach (Thibodeau), of course since they came along, I kind of feel like my career turned around. Just believing in me, being in the right role and just the teammates that I had, guys that are really fun to play with, he said. Even when I had the recent wrist injury which sidelined him for seven games, when the injury first happened, I think the toughest was not playing with the guys. It wasnt so much anything else, it was just not being out there with them. It kind of, in a way, felt bad, that it happened and I wanted to be back so bad. So really, its a bunch of things. Coach has been great, but its everything around. Everything around, just making it easier for me to come in and play.

From Thibodeaus perspective, even before he arrived in Chicago, Deng was always a great player.

We always thought he was very difficult to guard, from the standpoint of if you lost track of him, he was going to make you pay, the coach said of his view of Deng from afar, when he was a Celtics assistant. When you look at what hes done in his career, each year its been very good. So, when we were playing against him, we were always concerned about him and I think the thing that probably set him back a little bit was the injuries, and you dont have any control over that. The last two years have been relatively good, been very durable last year and this year you cant say enough about him coming back as quickly as hes done that and hes been terrific for us.

Bulls assistant coach Adrian Griffin, a former teammate of Deng and now the staffer who works with the teams wing players, has marveled at Dengs development, perseverance and now, league-wide recognition.

Im very ecstatic, just to be a former teammate, on the coaching staff and just to see how far hes grown as a player, and hes always been a professional, even at the age of 19, when he came in the league. He always took his craft seriously and hes one of the guys that I work with that I really dont have to monitor because he really self-monitors himself. Just a constant pro, so I was so happy because if anyone deserved it, it was Lu, Griffin told CSNChicago.com.

Hes been overcoming injury. Hes overcome criticism from him, I guess not playing through injuries or whatever people said about him Oh, hes not this type of caliber player and I think this proves everyone wrong, that he is an All-Star in this league. He plays on both ends of the court. Hes definitely, along with Derrick, our MVP of our team. Just the things that hes done he guards the toughest guy every night, runs the floor, defends, scores he does it all for us.

All the credit has to go with Tom Thibodeau and his system, and just with Luol Deng and his constant professionalism. I had very little to do with it. I think if you look at just the progress of everyone since Tom has come here, just the hard work and ethic that hes brought to this team, everyones been able to benefit from it and I think, no more than Luol Deng. Its just a great pleasure to be part of it.

For Deng, going through those difficult times were well worth it, considering the position that him personally and the Bulls as a team are in now. He considers the past two seasons the best of his eight-year career.

The last two years have definitely been that. I think just the record last year, going to the playoffs, the attitude, the mindset that we have, it makes basketball a lot more fun. It makes it really so much easier to be in this locker room, knowing that youve just got to do the little things and youll win. Some nights, you dont do much and you still get credit for it, he explained. It just shows how much depth and the players that we have.

"There are nights that I know that I havent played well, but because of the teams success, you get a lot of credit for it and in the past, theres nights where you give everything and you work so hard, and you go play and you dont get any credit, so its really great to be on this side and this kind of team, where everyone in this locker room kind of give it their all for everyone when we go out there.

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If Kyle Schwarber's back, the rest of the National League will have another reason to worry about the second-half Cubs

If Kyle Schwarber's back, the rest of the National League will have another reason to worry about the second-half Cubs

Kyle Schwarber’s proper introduction to the Cubs-Sox rivalry came in the summer of 2015 when a fan on the South Side threw a half-empty “tall boy” at him in left field. A little more than a year removed from college, Schwarber didn’t understand why someone wouldn’t finish all the beer first.  

David Ross chimed in, raising his voice loud enough so Schwarber and a group of reporters could hear him inside the visiting clubhouse: “You should have shotgunned it and then went over there and found him.

“I tell you what: I’d hate to try to wrap up Kyle Schwarber. I guarantee you that whoever threw that beer doesn’t want (any) part of Kyle Schwarber. I promise you that one.”

That was the rookie orientation before Schwarber: blasted five playoff home runs that October; suffered a devastating knee injury that almost wiped out his entire 2016 season; made a dramatic return to the World Series; and experienced newfound fame and fortune that would change his life forever.

Mess with Schwarber? That aura of invincibility is gone after his detour to Triple-A Iowa before the All-Star break. But the first-place Cubs will take Thursday night’s 6-3 win over the White Sox as another sign that he is almost back, yet another reason why the defending champs look ready to continue this second-half surge. 

“I told him that if he had a couple more push-ups in there, he would have had three homers tonight, but we’ll take a triple,” winning pitcher Jon Lester said afterward. “Schwarber’s been swinging the bat great since he’s been back.”

No doubt, the Cubs caught the sell-mode White Sox at the right time during the final days leading up to the July 31 trade deadline. Even in going 3-for-4 and blasting his 16th and 17th home runs – which traveled 814 feet combined at Guaranteed Rate Field – Schwarber is still only hitting .191 with 90 strikeouts in 79 games this season.     

But the Cubs have always given Schwarber the benefit of the doubt and will point to his big personality and encouraging numbers since his Triple-A reset ended on July 6, getting on base almost 37 percent of the time and hitting safely in 10 of 13 games with five homers, three doubles and that triple.

“Retrospectively, we should not have expected that much,” manager Joe Maddon admitted. “I’m guilty of that kind of a narrative or a dialogue also, because I was really eager to watch him play a full season of Major League Baseball.

“But the guy missed the whole season and did really well in a small window of time at the end of the year. So maybe my expectations exceeded what they should have been.

“I do believe he is that good. I do believe you’re going to come back and see him play at the level we anticipated. But he might have just needed more time. And we just didn’t recognize that.

“I might have been as guilty as anybody regarding the promotion of that. But I believe in him fully. I know it’s going to happen. There’s been some really good major-league hitters that have gone through the same thing.” 

At this point, the Cubs (54-47) would love to see what kind of wrecking ball Schwarber could be for a half-season. To his credit, Schwarber has been the same throughout all the ups and downs, someone who looks and sounds like a guy you would drink tall boys with.

“I just want to worry about putting the barrel on the ball,” Schwarber said. “I’m just trying to stay within myself, be short (with my swing) and it’s paying off.”