by Aggrey Sam / @CSNBullsInsider
“A complete player.”
That’s how Luol Deng describes himself following a recent practice at the Berto Center, the Chicago Bulls’ suburban practice facility. “Certain coaches,” Deng continues, “might say I need scoring. This guy’s a great scorer, I need him. I don’t care about his defense.’ Some guys would say, ‘I have this guy that scores, that guy that scores, so I need the guy that does everything,’ and that’s where I come in.
“I don’t want to seem like I’m trying to sound arrogant or anything, but if Thibs [Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau] said, ‘I want 20 points from you tonight without playing any D,’ I think I could do that…I could sugarcoat everything and then make sure I get my 18 shots up. But that’s not me. I want to play the right way for my teammates, I want to play the right way for the coach and if I was a coach or teaching little kids, that’s the way I would want to teach them how to play.”
The beauty in Deng’s game might not be as clear to the highlight-watching faction among us, but watching him play on a nightly basis, it’s the totality of his game and the ability to make plays, both subtle and obvious, that defines him. Whether it’s a key defensive stop down the stretch or a step-back move before making a contested pull-up J, keeping a possession alive with an offensive rebound or a cut along the baseline for a reverse layup—often all of the above in the same evening—Deng, a Second-Team All-Defensive pick a year ago, has developed into the ultimate glue guy. A superstar role player, if you will.
“It’s the defense, rebounding, moving without the ball, the ability to read the game, to swing the ball,” explains Thibodeau. “Those are things that sometimes get overlooked by everyone except his teammates and his coaches.”
A few seasons ago, prior to Thibodeau’s 2010 arrival in Chicago, things were very different for Deng. Some fans in the Windy City deemed him unworthy of the lucrative contract extension he signed. Some fans tagged him as “brittle” for missing games with legit injuries—perhaps most significant was the fact that he didn’t play in the epic, seven-game Bulls-Celtics first-round series in ’09. Some fans suggested—because he wasn’t able to display his full set of skills under then-coach Vinny Del Negro—that Deng wasn’t a vital part of the squad’s future, let alone a capable secondary scoring option to Rose.
Thibs, though, who was on the opposing sidelines as a coach for the Celtics during the aforementioned ’09 series, saw so much more. “I’d be here late at night and he’d be coming in to lift, go in the whirpool, the cold tub, then in the pool. Then he’d come out and shoot,” says Thibs. “You could see the commitment he made to the team and to winning, and how hard he worked to get himself ready to play, and I knew that that’s the type of leadership I wanted for our team. Because it wasn’t him saying the right things and doing none of the right things. It was him doing all of the right things and just not saying too much.”
In the last two-plus years, playing in Coach Thibs’ system with a renewed confidence, the 6-9, 220-pound Deng has averaged between 15 and 18 points per game, between 6 and 7 rebounds per game and between 39 and 41 minutes per game. But for all those numbers, it’s his leadership and toughness, something fans once questioned, that’s been valued most.
“Sometimes that’s the best type of leadership that you can have,” says Thibs. “To me, it’s just all the intangibles that he brings to winning. He has very good statistics, but you can’t measure his true value to the team by his statistics. He just brings so much toughness to our team.”
To put it into digestible words: During his League MVP-winning campaign two seasons back, Derrick Rose referred to Deng as the team MVP.
Still, par for his slept-on-in-the-NBA course, Deng didn’t make the All-Star Game that season. But in a bit of a surprise, last season during the lockout-shortened schedule, Deng was named an All-Star despite missing 12 games with torn ligaments in his left wrist and posting somewhat lesser numbers as a result. Whether he deserved to go last season or the season before, the normally understated Deng, a native of South Sudan, made a major statement by wearing a t-shirt with a map of Africa on it during player introductions on All-Star Sunday.
Says Deng, “It meant a lot. I just think that I’ve put in a lot of hard work, I’ve gone through a lot of injuries—some injuries that people never believed and I’m not going to go back to that, but that’s something that I will always remember—but it felt good. It felt good to finally be recognized as an All-Star.
“Not a lot of people who come from where I come from or that world get an opportunity to play for the Chicago Bulls or in the NBA, and I think a lot of times what makes me who I am is I try to just enjoy what I’m doing,” continues Deng, who left Duke after two semesters, making him the only one of nine siblings without a college degree. “Don’t get me wrong: I appreciate the fact that I’m representing Africa or that I came through London and I played in the Olympics for them, that I have kids that look up to me. I appreciate every single minute of it, but at the end of the day, I have to enjoy what I do, in order to make it successful.”
Deng’s teammate Joakim Noah, whose mother is Swedish and whose father, Yannick, a tennis-turned-music star, is the son of a Cameroonian soccer player, chimes in: “Luol is an ambassador out there, so African players show him a lot of love and he’s somebody who goes back all the time and does a lot of good things for the kids out there. I respect that. Lu’s not only about just basketball, but he does a lot of good things out there, a lot of things for the kids. Spent time in refugee camps. Not a lot of guys do things like that and he’s always out there, so I respect that.”
In case you haven’t read the back story in previous issues of SLAM, Deng is a true citizen of the world. For example, not that he doesn’t listen to hip-hop, but Fela’s more likely to be blasting from Lu’s headphones before a game. He lived in Egypt as a child after his family was exiled from his native, war-torn Sudan, then received asylum from Great Britain and spent his formative years in London—a major reason he opted to play for Team GB in the Olympics even after suffering the wrist injury which he valiantly played with in the second half of last season with the expectation that the Bulls were a title contender. Deng then enrolled at Blair Academy in NJ and became one of this country’s top high school prospects, then went one-and-done at Duke.
The fascinating background creates the burden of balancing Deng’s NBA workload with being the face of the game in England and his philanthropic efforts throughout Africa, but unlike a lot of pros, who view the offseason as either their time to relax or strictly a period to improve their games, the 27-year-old claims he can get it all in.
“If I’m not playing [in international competition during the offseason], there was a couple years where I would come here in the morning and I would bring food with me, and I would work out [all day]. I’ve worked really hard to be able to be here and do what I do,” Deng breaks down, illustrating why Thibs knows his small forward is capable of extended playing time. “I played almost the whole game yesterday. I came in today, I had so much energy because after last night (a game in which he played all but 42 seconds), I went and recovered, I ate right. I have to do this stuff. In the past, maybe I didn’t, but I wasn’t playing as much, and I always think if I play 20 minutes tomorrow, I’ll feel like I’ve done nothing, and I’ll come back and I will shoot at night. Every time I play less than 30, I come back and I shoot at night because I know there’s going to come a time where I’m going to play 48, so I try to just condition myself for that.”
Noah, who has joined Deng among the League’s minutes-per-game leaders this season with the free-agent departure of understudy center Omer Asik to Houston, says that Deng has become an expert on how to be an ironman: “He takes recovery real seriously. He’s always in the ice tank. Somebody who’s just always trying to just be ready for the game and when you’re playing 40-plus minutes, if there’s anybody I could take advice from, it’s Lu. He’s been doing it for such a long time and to me, he’s just the ultimate professional in keeping his body right, staying focused. To me, there’s so many ups and downs in a basketball season and he just stays steady, stays ready to play, stays ready to practice. He’s just a great, great professional.”
But “professional” doesn’t always equate to appreciated, which explains why, after the elites at his position—LeBron, Durant, Carmelo—Deng is rarely mentioned when discussions about the best small forwards in the League take place, despite currently being more effective than the likes of an aging Paul Pierce, more consistent than a flashier Rudy Gay, a better scorer than Andre Iguodala or simply outplaying Danny Granger in head-to-head matchups, to name a quartet of players whose names ring more bells than Deng’s. But as long as the Bulls, who have gotten off to a competitive, yet uneven start without Rose in the lineup, continue their winning ways, that’s just fine with Deng, their complete player.