Sam: Luol Deng's season of change

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Sam: Luol Deng's season of change

Monday, Dec. 13, 2010
10:30 a.m.
By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

Toward the conclusion of last month's double-overtime thriller in Phoenix, Luol Deng wore his emotions on his sleeve. Not surprising, given his role--26 points and 10 rebounds----in the Bulls' dramatic comeback win, except for the fact that the seventh-year small forward is usually expressionless on the court.

But Deng's jubilant nature carried over as he walked off the floor, into the tunnel and inside the visiting locker room in the Suns' arena, where he joined his visiting teammates. There, the longest-tenured member of the Bulls revealed a bigger reason behind his postgame joy.

"We just care about winning," Deng told reporters. "It's just because I'm enjoying it...some nights, I'm not going to shoot and I'm still going to be just as happy...

"I'm just happy that we have a great mindset right now and a great team that cares about winning first," he continued. "I'm really enjoying it. Every night, I'm looking forward to going out there on the floor and playing. We've got great teammates, a great coaching staff. It's just fun. It's just fun to play...it's a different team."

While that illustrates Deng's optimism regarding the team dynamic--longtime team observers claim they've never seen him so positive--it doesn't completely explain his individual outlook.

Currently averaging 17.8 points (up from last season's 17.6) and 6.2 rebounds (down from last season's 7.1) per game, casual fans might not notice a big difference in Deng. However, in comparison to the last few Bulls campaigns, during which he had a largely stagnant role in the team's offense--it was often lamented that Deng was seemingly either spotting up in the corners or forced to create one-on-one offense, not necessarily the strength of his game--he has become a much more active threat in new head coach Tom Thibodeau's motion scheme.

In the system, the 6-foot-9 Duke product is usually found moving without and before Carlos Boozer's return to the Bulls--and on occasion, even after his fellow ex-Blue Devil returned--he has logged minutes as a stretch power forward, enabling to take advantage of his mobility and improved shooting range without giving him too much size. Thibodeau has also employed him as a defensive stopper, utilizing him at his natural position of small forward (arguably the most talented offensive position in the league), as well as on shooting guards and power forwards, depending on the matchup.

"Lu, hes guarded three positions for us," said the rookie head coach last week. "Hes guarded off guards, hes guarded small forwards and power forwards."

"Hes done a little bit of everything, from scoring, posting, driving, shooting the three, moving the ball, playmaking," continued Thibodeau. "Hes a guy you can count on and you can trust."

Added Derrick Rose, "Lu is playing the four, man. Thats crazy. Having to stick Dallas power forward Dirk Nowitzki sometimes and all the other great power forwardsKG Celtics power forward Kevin Garnett, Rockets power forward Luis Scola sometimesthats crazy."

Deng takes it all in stride.

"Im at a point in my career now where its an everyday thing. When I was first in the league, youre looking at your matchup and youre wondering what to do. By now, you know what to do," Deng told reporters prior to last week's win over the Lakers, in which he was prepared to guard small forward counterpart and former Bull Ron Artest, power forward Lamar Odom and superstar Kobe Bryant, which didn't happen with Boozer back in the lineup, but occurred in last month's loss at the Staples Center. "Youve played against these guys so many times, youve watched them over and over again, and some guys are going to have a good night. My whole mindset is Im going to play hard and Im going to make his shot tough."

Defensive matchups aside, Deng is happy to be a jack-of-all-trades for Thibodeau.

"Coach is using me more. Hes using my defense, hes using my offense, Im shooting threes now, which the team needs. Hes putting me on guys when theyre hot," Deng told CSNChicago.com. "Coach is just using what I can do more. He just doesnt look at me and say, I need you to score 20. Hes kind of seeing, I need steals, I need help on defense, I need rebounding and whatever that role is that night, Im willing to go out there and do it."

The trust Thibodeau has built so quickly with Deng--and the entire roster, for that matter--has gone a long way. In Deng's case specifically, however, it helps that one of Thibodeau's assistants, Adrian Griffin, has a history with Deng.

Griffin was a veteran on the Bulls during Deng's rookie season (he would rejoin the team for Deng's third and fourth years), 2004-05, and the bond built from when the 19-year-old rookie was an NBA novice to now, when Griffin does extensive skill work with the team's wing players, has helped Deng's comfort level with a new regime, the fourth coaching staff of Deng's career.

"I had the pleasure of playing with Lu when he was a rookie, then for a few years. Its been a delight, just to be on the staff and being able to coach him, and just seeing how far hes grown. Hes grown into a very mature man. He was very mature as a 19-year-old back then and hes just been a delight to work with. He has a great attitude and its really been like a partnership," Griffin told CSNChicago.com.

"Were very proud to have him on our team," he said. "I think he plays the game the right way. When we start winning more, I think the accolades will come more for him."

Griffin also believes Thibodeau, who made it a point to get to know the Bulls returnees upon accepting the position in June, is a coach who can bring out the best in Deng.

"Tom has done an excellent job to get guys to buy in to what were doing on both ends of the court. Everyone sees Tom as a defensive specialist, but we work on our offense a lot, too, and we have some very good plays and hes very good at putting guys in the right position to score," said Griffin. "I think he came at the right time in Lus career. Lu is peaking. He came into the league very young and now hes a veterana young veteranand our offense really fits him well."

One change in Deng has been his pregame routine, something a lot of veteran players--in any sport--are loathe to change, especially after experiencing even a modicum of success. Before games, both at the United Center and on the road, Deng arrives at the arena before his teammates and goes through an extensive workout session with Griffin.

"I trust Griff. I played with Griff and Griff, from Day 1since I was a rookiehas always been giving me tips. We did it the first home game and I had a career-high 40 against Portland, so we stuck with it."

"The routine really fits me because I get out of the hotel early, I get to come here, Im loose. Now I get to come in and watch the opponents previous game and scout the other team, and thats really the best part. I get to watch the game closely, see what theyre doing, where Im going to get my shots and what theyre trying to do offensively. With me, I do better when I visualize thingswhen I see themso its been helping me a lot."

His teammates have noticed.

"He was in the gym today an hour before we came here, so if hes shooting the air out of the ball tonight, thats the reason why. We were supposed to be here at 6; I think Lu was here at like 5 or something like thathe even took a nap here," Rose told CSNChicago.com in Dallas last month. "Hes always at opposing arenas early, making sure he catches a cab, comes over here by himselfhim and Ligs John Ligmanowski," the equipment manager.

While Deng will never be the most vocal of the Bulls, his ability, professional demeanor and experience with the team have earned respect, garnering him the captaincy of the team, along with Rose, Boozer and Joakim Noah. In this role, he mixes leading by example, mentoring younger players and delivering his messages in a team-first format.

"Coach has put a lot of leadership on me, more than I had before. What I really try to do is talk to everyonefrom Derrick to Joakim, to Taj Gibson, to James Johnsonand honestly, what I just do is try to make them feel comfortable," said Deng. "Its a team thing when somebody misses a shot or someone misses an assignment on defense because I do the same thing, so its kind of like were all doing it; its how you get someone to not do it. I'm just being positive about it and it really helps. We have a relationship where I can go up to any guy and say anything."

Second-year reserve James Johnson believes that despite Deng's quiet nature, his voice still rings loud in the Bulls locker room.

"More times in the huddle than not, hes the one whos speaking like, Weve got to pick it up on defense, weve got to rotate, move the ball, things like that. Hes just doing every little thing that he can to help us win with other leaders like D-Rose, Joakim and C-Booz," Johnson told CSNChicago.com. "Hes like a big brother. Him and Joakim always help, but Lu, hes always there. Always making sure Im okay, asking me if Im getting jumpers up. He comes in at night time sometimes and were talking. Hes just a good person and good vet to have at my position."

Added Rose: "Hes just working hard and hes one of the four leaders on this team. He leads by example. Lu isnt really talkative like I am, but when hes out there, hes always playing hard, trying to get himself going throughout the whole game and Im happy that hes still on this team.

Focused. Making sure that hes eating right, resting right, always in the gym."

Griffin has definitely noticed a change in Deng since his early years with the team.

"He has become more vocal. We get there at like 4 oclock on gameday at the arena. He gets his shots up, workout. It starts with that type of dedication. Other players see it and it gives you more credibility when you want to speak to them. Just the way hes been playing this year, very unselfish, playing at a very high level on both ends of the court.

But even with all of the positives going on in-house with Deng and the Bulls, the public perception of Deng as injury-prone and overpaid still lingers. Much of that stems from the stress fracture in his leg that caused him to miss the team's exciting, seven-game 2009 first-round playoff series against the Boston Celtics after signing a six-year, 71 million contract the previous summer.

"It was just a tough time. Until today, I think my injury still affects me. It was a serious injury. As much as it hurt people that I wasnt playing, I could say it hurt me 100 times more. It was the toughest thing Ive done so far in my basketball career, sitting out there and just watching. It was just a tough time and I think everything happens for a reason. Im really trying to take it in a positive way and really move forward. Im waiting for a time we get back to the playoffs, really do well and win a series," Deng told CSNChicago.com.

Deng has developed into one of the game's best two-way small forwards, easily capable of being the primary option on a lesser team, yet a tough enough defender to be matched up with the likes of LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony, and at least make them earn their numbers. Speaking of Anthony, the Denver small forward--rumored to be on the move since the offseason's free-agent bonanza ended--is the name on the tip of most Bulls fans tongues, longing for a Miami-like "Big Three" situation in Chicago.

However, while Anthony, arguably the league's best pure scorer, would be an offensive upgrade from Deng, he's not the same caliber of defender. It's just the latest proposed scenario outsiders have concocted to supposedly make the Bulls, who have been looking mighty impressive as of late on their current five-game winning streak, an instant championship contender without the proverbial albatross of Deng and his contract holding the team back, speculation the native of Sudan--he visited his homeland last summer for the first time since childhood--has grown accustomed to throughout his career.

"I never go into a game and just look at it as, I cant wait to get through it and move on. Thats just not me and I think the front office understands that. All these rumors are going to come back. We start winning, its going to go away. Anything else happens, its going to come back. Its just something youve got to live with it as an athlete and youve got to be tough-minded and not worry about that."

Confirmed Griffin: "I dont even think Lu thinks about thatI think the real basketball fans really know what he brings to the team."

"I know the Chicago Bulls--the entire organization--knows hes a big part of what we're trying to do and a lot of the time, the only thing that matters is what happens in-house."

Deng isn't a flashy player. He's not a high-flying athlete, an overly physical player or somebody with extremely tricky ballhandling. But he is a complete all-around player.

In addition to his aforementioned defensive ability, he's an above-average rebounder for his position, has excellent size and length, possesses a solid post-up game and has added consistent 3-point range (he's shooting 39.5 percent from beyond the arc, while taking a career-high 3.9 attempts per game) to his already excellent mid-range game.

"He knows when to drive, when to shoot his shot. He can take it in the post," Griffin told CSNChicago.com. "His game is really expanding. Hes growing a lot. When I was here with him, he was a rookie and he basically drove it right or he was spotting up. Now, he has a repertoire of different moves that is very impressive."

With Deng's diverse range of skills and finally being healthy, one might expect him to chafe a little bit when Boozer returned to the lineup, as his own offensive role would likely decrease. But his faith in his teammates and his new coaching staff have lessened his concern about his individual numbers.

"A night like Wednesday night (in Cleveland), where Boozer didnt put up big numbers, I only had 13 and we were still able to win the game. Just a few years agoor even last yearI couldnt really say that. last year, I just felt like every night I had to go out there and put up big numbers, but this year I really learned with the team that we havelike Wednesday night, switching on Cavaliers forward Antawn Jamison at the end, I really switched my whole focus on just trying to stop himand thats just maturity," Deng told CSNChicago.com.

Will his confidence in the team's share-the-wealth mentality and Thibodeau's system pay off at season's end?

"Honestly, I cant tell yet. The team that we had when Ben Wallace was playing his best, we had P.J. Brown, we had Malik Allen, we had Michael Sweetney, B.G. and Kirkwe had depth back thenbut we had guys, just like the team we have now, that are committed to the team. I really believe that year, we just came against a good Detroit team that beat us in the second round of the 2007 playoffs, the furthest the Bulls have advanced in the postseason since the championship era and Game 3 really set the difference. But I feel like, Are we more talented now? Yes,'" said Deng. "We have more talent, but we have a long ways to go. Some of the guys that we have here havent won playoff series yet and I think that s where experience comes in. As the season goes oneven until nowwe know our roles, but theyre not set. I think the time will come off when we just play off each other instinctively and well be a good team then."

Regardless of what happens in the long run this season, the new-look Bulls, with a new-mentality Deng quietly performing at a high level, will have fun doing it.

Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.com's Bulls Insider. Follow him @CSNBullsInsider on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bulls information and his take on the team, the NBA and much more.

Denzel Valentine a candidate for minutes at the point for Bulls

Denzel Valentine a candidate for minutes at the point for Bulls

The common refrain among coaches in the first days of training camp is “this guy had an incredible summer”, a phrase Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg has said so much that even he had to laugh when asked who didn’t have a banner summer period.

Of course, that’s before fans and media get to see anyone play, so we can only speculate who’ll win certain position battles, like the starting power forward spot or how deep Hoiberg’s rotation will go.

So in the spirit of speculation, Bulls rookie Denzel Valentine’s versatility makes him a candidate for the backup point guard position, a spot that is filled with different options for Hoiberg to choose from.

“He’s such an instinctive player. He does a great job,” Hoiberg said. “We talk about making simple plays. You’ve done your job when you beat your man, draw the second defender and make the easy, simple play. Denzel is great at that. That’s not a gift that everybody has. That’s not an instinct that all players have. But Denzel certainly has it.”

One wonders if Valentine could find himself on the outside looking in at the start of the season, like Bobby Portis did last year before all the injuries hit the Bulls and forced him into action.

It’s a different vision than when Valentine was drafted as a late lottery pick after a seasoned career at Michigan State. The Bulls hadn’t signed Dwyane Wade or Rajon Rondo in free agency, and had traded Derrick Rose 24 hours before the draft, so the thought was Valentine could be an instant contributor.

Even still, Valentine can likely play anything from point guard to small forward, but hasn’t gotten extensive reps at the point, yet.

“I’ve played on the wing so far. A little bit of point,” Valentine said. “I got a couple reps on the point, but like 70-30. Seventy on the wing, 30 on the point.”

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He got an early jump on the Hoiberg terminology at summer league, so the language isn’t a big adjustment, but having to learn multiple positions along with the tendencies of new teammates can mean a steeper learning curve.

“Yeah, I just got to continue learning sets and learning guys’ strengths so that I can use that to their best advantage,” Valentine said. “Play-make as best I can when I’m at the point guard spot. Just learning the system, learning guys’ strengths, and then I’ll be better at it.”

The presence of Wade and Jimmy Butler, one of whom will likely anchor the second unit as Hoiberg will probably stagger minutes so each can have the requisite time and space, means even if Valentine were on the floor, he wouldn’t have to be a natural point guard.

Hoiberg does, however, crave having multiple playmakers who can initiate offense or create shots off penetration or pick and roll action, meaning Valentine can work it to his advantage.

“I think he can. Jimmy played with the ball in his hands a lot last year,” Hoiberg said. “Jimmy rebounds the ball and if Dwyane rebounds the ball, they’re bringing it. Rajon if he’s out there knows to fill one of the lanes. Denzel is an excellent passer. He’s got such good basketball instincts. So if you can get guys out there who can make plays, that’s what it’s all about. I think you’re very difficult to guard in this league when you have multiple ballmakers.”

Other notes:

Dwyane Wade won’t be taking walk-up triples for the Bulls, despite his call that Hoiberg wants him being more comfortable from behind the long line. Hoiberg does want him being willing and able to take corner threes, likely off guard penetration from Rondo or Jimmy Butler.

When Wade played with LeBron James in Miami, cutting from the corners became a staple, so putting him there could be an old wrinkle Hoiberg is adding to his scheme.

Wade took seven of his 44 3-pointers from the corner last season, hitting two from the right side, according to vorped.com.

“When he’s open, especially in the corners, that’s a shot we want him taking. It’s a thing we worked on yesterday, making sure he stays on balance,” Hoiberg said. “He’s got a natural lean on his shot, which has been very effective, being on the elite mid range shooters in our game. That’s allowed him to get shots over bigger defenders. When you get out further from the basket, especially by the line, you need to get momentum going in, work on your body position and work on finishing that shot. He’s got good mechanics, it’s a matter of finishing the shot.”

Position battles to watch for at Bulls camp

Position battles to watch for at Bulls camp

After the Bulls traded for veteran center Robin Lopez and signed guards Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo in free agency,  the starting lineup for the 2016-17 season was 80 percent complete with Jimmy Butler moving over to small forward. The only real question remained: will Nikola Mirotic or Taj Gibson start at power forward?

Arguments can be made for both players, but early in camp it appears Mirotic will have the edge, based on his three-point shooting ability. The Bulls need to create floor spacing for their wing players (Wade and Butler) who are most effective driving to the basket, and Mirotic has the ability to knock down the three (.355 for his career, .390 last season). Mirotic is also an underrated defensive rebounder with decent size at 6-foot-10, 240 pounds.

Mirotic got off to a fast start last season in a starting role, but eventually went to the bench after a late November-early December shooting slump. His second NBA season was also sidetracked by an emergency appendectomy in late January that caused him to miss almost six weeks of action. Mirotic finished the season strong, and went on to play a lead role with his former Bulls teammate, Pau Gasol, on Spain’s national team at the Rio Olympics. Mirotic will be a restricted free agent at season’s end, so he has a lot riding on establishing himself as a bonafide NBA starter.

It's a similar story for Gibson, who will be an unrestricted free agent next summer, and is looking to land one more big contract when he turns 32-years-old next June. Gibson is known for his relentless work on the boards and his ability to defend power forwards and centers. He’s also 100 percent healthy after dealing with the after-effects of ankle surgery last season. But given the Bulls’ spacing issues, it makes sense for the coaching staff to go with Mirotic alongside Wade, Rondo and Butler, and to pair Gibson with young perimeter threats like Doug McDermott, Denzel Valentine and Isaiah Canaan on the second unit. Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg could use Gibson in a backup center role, with McDermott getting minutes at power forward in small ball lineups. Gibson will play, but don’t be surprised to see his name come up again in midseason trade rumors.

So, where does that leave 2015 first-round draft pick Bobby Portis? Portis looked good in Las Vegas Summer League play, showing off improved low-post skills and a consistent three-point shot. But unless Portis has a big preseason, it’s hard to imagine him getting consistent rotation minutes early in the season. Portis could earn some time as a stretch five backing up Lopez, but those minutes might also go to Gibson or second-year center Cristiano Felicio. Portis worked hard all summer, and should be a better all-around player in his sophomore season, but he faces an uphill battle to earn regular minutes. It will be interesting to see how many of the Bulls young players wind up logging time with the Bulls’ new D-League team in Hoffman Estates. Portis might not be involved as a No. 1 draft pick, but Felicio and second-round selection Paul Zipser might want to get familiar with the trip out to the Sears Center.

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The other major training camp battle involves the backup point guard spot behind Rondo. The coaches have a wide variety of options, starting with former Notre Dame star Jerian Grant, who came over in the Derrick Rose trade with the Knicks. The soon to be 24-year-old Grant is the son of long-time NBA player Harvey Grant and nephew of former Bulls star Horace Grant. The Bulls were interested in selecting Jerian Grant in the 2015 draft, but he went off the board a few picks before their turn in the first round.

Grant was a big-time scorer at Notre Dame, but struggled to get on the court in his rookie season with the Knicks. After Kurt Rambis replaced Derek Fisher as head coach of the Knicks, Grant finally got some consistent playing time, averaging 16.8 ppg over the last four games of the season. He’s not a great three-point shooter, hitting just 22 percent from beyond the arc as a rookie, but his ability to get to the basket and create open shots for teammates would give the Bulls consistent point guard play throughout the game.

Canaan was signed late in free agency to give the Bulls another long-range shooting option. He hit 36 percent of his 3’s with Philadelphia last season, averaging 11 points a game. The 25-year-old Canaan figures to be specialist with the Bulls, much like Aaron Brooks who could score points in bunches, but didn’t excel at running a half-court offense. Even though Canaan only stands 6 feet tall, he’s really a shooting guard in a point guard’s body, much like Brooks, D.J. Augustin, Nate Robinson and C.J. Watson who proceeded him.

6-foot-6 Spencer Dinwiddie was considered a potential lottery pick at Colorado before suffering a devastating knee injury that dropped him into the second round. Dinwiddie didn’t get a lot of playing time for Stan Van Gundy in Detroit, but he’s completely healthy now and showed during Summer League play he’s capable of scoring over smaller point guards in the post. His size, scoring ability and defensive skills might push him ahead of the other candidates when all is said and done.

The wild card in the backup point guard derby is this year’s first-round pick Denzel Valentine. Even though he played a wing spot at Michigan State, Valentine was the floor general for Tom Izzo, and is an exceptional passer with outstanding court vision. Since playing time behind Wade & Butler might be limited, Valentine could wind up running the point on the second unit, with Butler on the court as the primary initiator on offense. Valentine’s shooting ability gives the Bulls another floor spacer, and at 6-foot-5, he’ll have size advantage over smaller backup point guards.

Boiling it all down, Hoiberg and his assistants figure to do a lot of experimenting during the preseason to find out which players execute best together. But once the ball goes up for real on Oct. 27, Hoiberg has to decide on his best 9 or 10 players for a consistent regular-season rotation. Matchups could dictate which backup point guards find the floor, but even this early in camp it’s pretty obvious the Bulls are intrigued by Valentine’s potential, and he should get consistent playing time in his rookie season.