For some players, “contract years” lead to distractions. For others, they serve as motivation. Luol Deng is the latter.
While he said on Bulls’ media day that he won’t discuss his impending free agency next summer, Deng intends for his actions to speak louder than words this season. The team’s longest-tenured player is taking a measured approach to the campaign, even as his role subtly changes.
“I know you guys get tired of me talking about him,” Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said, in a familiar refrain. “But that guy is a great player and I’m not just talking about performance during games. “He practices every day, practices hard, he’s in great shape, he’s a great leader, he does whatever is necessary to win and you can count on him each and every day. Those guys are invaluable.”
The Bulls’ top scorer last season in the absence of Derrick Rose, Deng found himself targeted by opposing defenses and having to force his own offense. With Rose back and the emerging Jimmy Butler alongside him on the wing, he’s freer for open looks, while also getting utilized more in the post, as well as continuing to serve as one of the league’s premier off-ball cutters.
“I just have to keep working on it. If you look at our team, the 2 and the 3 doesn’t really matter. So I just have to stay working on my offensive game and just know that my scoring is going to be huge for our team. So I just have to keep working on it. I don’t think we made it a point today, it’s just how the game went,” Deng said of his post-up game. “The way the game went, they wanted to double team down there and we just moved the ball and got good shots, but it’s something I’ve been working on. I think every year, as you get older, you have to add things to your game. I look at the post as one of the things I can get better at. Being 6-9 and long, most nights I’m going to have an advantage there.”
In Friday evening’s 103-98 Bulls win over Indiana at the United Center, Deng showcased all of the above, en route to scoring 22 points on 7-for-14 shooting, including 3-for-4 from three-point range, as well as six rebounds. His chemistry with longtime teammate Rose helped his offense come easier than a year ago.
“It’s easy. I don’t need to have the ball in my hands. It’s using your basketball IQ, really,” Deng said of playing with the point guard. “I played with him before he got hurt, so just moving without the ball. He knows where I’m at on the floor and it makes the game a lot easier. I just tell him to be aggressive and he knows what spot I’m going to be in and he’s doing a good job of getting his rhythm back.”
The former league MVP has a similar appreciation for the All-Star small forward’s game.
“He’s at the end of practice with me almost every day, taking shots and just staying in the gym,” Rose explained. “For us and I think everybody, we know the goal and that’s to contend for the title. That’s putting in extra work when you don’t want to; coming in on hard days, really fighting through it. Just trying to push the other guys on the team to practice and work hard and that’s what me and him have been doing.”