Monday, Dec. 13, 2010
By Aggrey Sam
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.