Top 50: Luol Deng, no. 49

by Ben Taylor / @benitaylor

Luol Deng wasn’t part of the SLAMonline Top 50 last year.

Be honest: You didn’t notice, did you?

The thing is, in a League of individual stars, where most of the athletes you’ll find on this list are bigger names than the teams they play on, it can be hard to show love to a dude like Deng.

He’s a team guy. He’s the glue. The player’s player.

Getting on with business, doing whatever it takes to make his team better—even if it means playing injured when his superstar teammate is out and running himself into the ground for his team, literally, in the case of the life-threatening illness that ended his season in the middle of the Bulls’ playoff run.

That stuff doesn’t make the headlines, particularly in a season with so many incredible highlights, but for those who weren’t following, here’s a few Deng did make last year:

For the second straight season he played more minutes per game (38.7) than anyone else in the League—most of them spent making life miserable for the best player on the other team. The sheer volume of minutes he played meant that he not only was expected to play a crucial role at both ends of the floor when the game was on the line, but that he also carried the team when his fellow starters took a break.

He made a second consecutive All-Star appearance—selected by the coaches who have to work around his tireless defensive efforts.

Deng also finished in the top 10 in his position in scoring, rebounding and assists—and the competition at small forward isn’t exactly light.

Last year ended on a sour note, the toil of a long season and illness limiting his impact come the Playoffs, but there are signs that ’13-14 will be a good one for Deng.

For starters, he’s healthy and rested for the first time in years. After spending the last few years going from the NBA straight to international competition with Great Britain, Deng took the summer off—getting himself back in shape after another long season and the aforementioned illness. Deng’s biggest fan, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, has already said he plans to manage the small forward’s workload next year, but if he can hit 38-plus minutes and 16 points per game without rest, who knows what he could do rested.

Joining a fit and healthy Deng on the floor for the Bulls will be a (hopefully) fit and healthy Derrick Rose. Rose’s mere presence on the court, assuming he is even a fraction of the player he was before he got hurt, frees Deng to play his natural role—Lieutenant Deng, defensive leader and reliable second scorer.

The attention on the returning Rose will give the man from Sudan better looks in his favored areas—notably his solid mid-range game, and his knack for slashing and getting open—and take the pressure off Deng in the areas where he isn’t as strong.

And let’s not forget the million dollar elephant in the room—Deng is 28, and is now in the final year of his $80 million contract with Chicago. The deal he signs next summer will likely be the last big payday of his career, and whether it ends up being the Bulls or someone else who picks him up, Lu will be out there working to earn another big deal.

Other guys are going to be hogging the headlines again this year—even on his own team—but Luol Deng is going to be one of the most effective defensive players in the League again, taking on the unenviable task of stopping whichever superstar his team faces, and he’s going to get 16-18 points and 7 or 8 rebounds doing it.

That’s the kind of guy I’d want on my team, and someone who (at the least) deserves their spot in the Top 50.

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SLAMonline Top 50 Players 2013
Rank Player Team Position Pos. Rank
50 Monta Ellis Mavs SG 5
49 Luol Deng Bulls SF 10

Rankings are based on expected contribution in ’13-14—to players’ team, the League and the game.