The SLAMonline Top 50, generally speaking, is a way for us to ramp up for the NBA season. If you haven’t been with us for a minute, our writers painstakingly come together to rank the NBA’s best players based on their expected contributions for this upcoming season. Of course, we could be counting down to a lackluster lockout this year. But lockout or not, the criteria for the Top 50 is still the same. We’ve followed the same guidelines for the past three years, so this season, we can afford to get a little retrospective—you’ll find a slick bar chart for each player depicting his rank over the years. Be sure to check back seven days a week for the latest in the Top 50. So, without any further ado, we present the 2011 SLAMonline Top 50 Players.—Ed.

by Bryan Crawford / @_BryanCrawford

I was never a Luol Deng fan. Like ne-ver.

It was nothing personal, though. I think more than anything else my initial dislike of Deng stemmed from a long-standing hatred of players from Duke and the Chicago Bulls‘ apparent obsession with drafting Blue Devils (see: Elton Brand, Jay Williams and Chris Duhon). Personal bias aside, in the beginning, I didn’t see Luol Deng as anything special and certainly not the long-term answer that you usually expect from a Lottery selection.

After Deng’s first few seasons in Chicago, I’d begun clamoring for him to be traded like most Bulls fans were, even in spite of his best statistical season as a pro in ’06-07 in which he averaged 18 points and almost 7 rebounds per game. For a third year player, those numbers were more than solid and the hope was the Bulls would try and cash in on his value—which couldn’t seem to get any higher—and find a better player at the wing. The combination of Deng, Andres Nocioni and Thabo Sefolosha didn’t exactly inspire confidence in the program, you know?

Besides, it was a well known fact that both Lu and teammate Ben Gordon (drafted three spots ahead of Deng in ‘04) had contracts that were due up at the same time. Considering all that BG had done in a Bulls uni (look it up if you don’t remember because it’s ridiculous), most felt he deserved to be paid over Luol, thereby making Deng expendable and the Bulls’ most valuable trade asset.

But when management decided to give Deng $71 million in the summer of ’09 ($80 million adding in incentives) and only extended a one-year qualifying offer to BG in what was already a contentious negotiating process, the organization let it be known who they were rolling with and effectively made Gordon—their best player and scorer—an unrestricted FA at the end of the season.

All told, the logic the Bulls used in the decision to re-sign Deng made perfect sense (6-8, solid defender, great teammate) and realistically, there was no way the team could’ve kept both him and Gordon. But you just don’t let a dynamic scorer like that walk away for nothing just so you can pay superstar money to a guy who was at best, mediocre at his position. The Chicago Bulls had grossly overpaid Deng and everyone knew it.

And what did Luol do after the ink was dry on his new contract? Oh, he just went out and got himself hurt… again. You see, Deng had been injury prone since he came into the NBA and that fact alone made his re-signing all the more curious.

As a rookie in ’04-05, Deng missed 21 games with a broken wrist. In ’07-08 he missed a slew of games due to problems with his Achilles. In ’08-09, after inking that huge deal, he missed 33 games after sustaining a stress-fracture in his leg. And the following season, ’09-10, he got hurt again but by this time, the Bulls were stuck with him. His new contract made him virtually untradeable.

Despite Chicago’s good fortune of securing the No. 1 pick in ’09 which then brought with it the right to draft Derrick Rose, and despite Pooh’s obvious brilliance on the court as a rookie, Playoff appearances notwithstanding, the future in Chicago still didn’t seem all that bright as long as Luol Deng was in the fold.

But that all changed when Vinny Del Negro was fired and Tom Thibodeau was brought in to be the head coach. Lu’s game reached a whole new level.

Statistically he was pretty much the same player, but Thibodeau’s system played to Deng’s strength as a slasher and the coach put him in all sorts of positions to score the ball, making him a legitimate offensive threat and opening things up for other players. Whether it was Lu cutting and getting to the basket for the finish, or coming off screens and hitting the mid-range pull-up, or knocking down three-pointers, especially from the corners, in Thibs’s offense, Deng’s game flourished.

But it was on defense where Luol really left his mark.

Always known as a solid defender, after being coached up by Thiobdeau, Luol Deng virtually became a stopper on D. He would draw the opponent’s best perimeter player every single night and did more than a serviceable job on them in the process. His consistent play on both sides of the ball was enough to cause some people to say that he, and not Derrick Rose, was the team’s “real” MVP because Thibs couldn’t afford to even take him out of games on some nights.

Considering he played 82 games for just the second time in his career, Deng’s value was obvious and even with DRose’s stellar season, there’s no telling how good the Chicago Bulls would have been or how far they would have gotten without the play of Luol Deng who, from a scoring perspective, finished Top 5 at his position (in the Eastern Conference) behind LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Danny Granger and Paul Pierce.

That’s excellent company right there.

This is Deng’s first time making SLAMonline’s Top 50 and who knows, he may never make it again. But given his play last season and his contributions he’s expected to make this season (if there is one), Lu is definitely deserving of his place on the list. Besides, he’s not only won over Bulls fans after seven years, but he’s won over this writer as well.

Looking back at the 2004 NBA Draft, the Chicago Bulls trading the 31st pick (which ended up being Anderson Varejao) for Deng at No. 7 and getting $3 million in cash from the Phoenix Suns, there’s no question as to who got the better end of that deal. And most Bulls fans, now, wouldn’t go back and change it for anything in the world.

SLAMonline Top 50 Players 2011
RankPlayerTeamPositionPos. Rank
50Luol DengBullsSF8

Notes
• Rankings are based solely on projected ’11-12 performance.
• Contributors to this list include: Maurice Bobb, Shannon Booher, David Cassilo, Bryan Crawford, Sandy Dover, Adam Figman, Jon Jaques, Eldon Khorshidi, Ryne Nelson, Doobie Okon, Ben Osborne, Quinn Peterson, Dave Schnur, Abe Schwadron, Dan Shapiro, Irv Soonachan, Todd Spehr, Tzvi Twersky, Yaron Weitzman, DeMarco Williams and Ben York.
• Want more of the SLAMonline Top 50? Check out the archive.