Luol Deng fracturing critics this season


Nov 4

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The guy Bulls fans most love to hate—well, not quite hate, but always expect more from—has been the team’s best player thus far in the 2-2 start.

Luol Deng missed 52 games with injuries the last two seasons and had his scoring average drop last season to 14.1 points, six rebounds and 44.8 percent shooting, all better than only his rookie season. But he now leads the Bulls in scoring, rebounding and offensive rebounding—soft, you say?—and has been the team’s most reliable shooter.

Deng is coming off a monster 24 points and 20 rebounds game Tuesday in the win over Milwaukee following 26 points and eight rebounds in Sunday’s loss at Miami.

He’s been physical, reliable and active. Accused at times of disappearing late in games, Deng Tuesday made his only shot in the fourth quarter against the Bucks. But he led both teams in fourth quarter rebounding with six and got the Bulls only offensive rebound. On one memorable sequence, he buried a shoulder into 270-pound center Andrew Bogut to create space and a three-point play.

Carrying the burden—some would say—of the team’s biggest contract and whispers about his toughness and ability to fulfill expectations, Deng has quietly been sort of an ol’ reliable this season with 17 points and nine rebounds in the home opening win over the Spurs.

Promoted as a potential All Star in 2006-07 when the Bulls were 49-33 and Deng averaged 18.8 points, Deng, 24, has been shadowed by doubts and despair over injuries the last two years. Last season, he missed most of the last two months and playoffs, and the team seemed to take off once he went out, though the difference was the trade for John Salmons, who fit into Deng’s position, and Brad Miller.

Deng’s mood often mirrored his decline, and anxious fans demanded his removal at times.

But Deng persevered through the stress fracture, which some questioned, and has been a savior with Derrick Rose hurt, John Salmons off line and Tyrus Thomas inconsistent.

“At times,” Deng admitted about being hurt by the questioning. “The only difference is people that know basketball know there are different players in this league. There are guys that come out every night and score. Guys change the game in different ways. I see myself there.

“(There are) nights I’ll have 12 points, but I’ll have a lot of deflections, rebounds, change the game in other ways,” says Deng. “I come out to score, but I also look at doing other things. I (feel I am) very unselfish. I just don’t look at coming out and scoring 22 points every game. I never felt that was my game. When I start doing that I struggle. I’ve just got to play with energy and try to affect the game in different ways.

“Early in my career I averaged that many points,” Deng said about threatening to be a 20-point scorer at 21 years old. “Right away the expectations were higher, and that’s the way it should be. I think that year I didn’t miss any games. I felt very healthy and played every game as hard as I could. I always said when I am healthy I’ll have a lot of energy out there and make things happen.

“I’m not frustrated when people hold high standards,” Deng says. “My only frustration came when people questioned my injury. That’s the only time I felt it wasn’t fair. I knew I was injured. I’m not the kind of guy who’s going to come out in the paper and say anything about it. I knew in time it would tell. That was the worst feeling, thinking people felt I was faking it for some reason.”

So Deng suffered in silence, sort of. He brooded around the team at times, questioned his place with the team. But he was equally determined to show everyone they were wrong, whether they supported him or not.

Deng worked relentlessly to remain in shape, though he could not run hard until a few weeks before training camp opened. But he promised friends and those around the team he’d show and not tell. He said he was excited about the season and what he could bring and would work relentlessly.

Deng didn’t miss any practices or games, and then had the responsibility of something of an unofficial host when the team went to London, where Deng and his family settled after escaping the Sudan civil war. Deng had a big game against the Jazz there, but settled into just improving his health and conditioning in the remaining preseason games as he didn’t show much scoring spark. Many wondered again.

“Throughout the whole preseason I never looked at how I was shooting,” said Deng. “I kept feeling better each game. I know in London I scored 18 points in 22 minutes, but even my last game against the Wizards I felt better than in London. I knew I was feeling better and that was the key.

“I play as hard as I can and work at my game,” said Deng. “When I practice and stay healthy, I have a better rhythm going into the game. I’m a rhythm guy. When I have injuries and taking time off it affects my game.”

Deng is averaging 17.8 points and 10.5 rebounds, including 16 offensive rebounds, one more than Joakim Noah. Only Noah has a higher shooting percentage, but Noah mostly dunks. Deng is second at 48.3 percent, and we know he doesn’t dunk much.

Deng also is 50 percent on threes, tied with Jannero Pargo, though Pargo has attempted six and Deng just two. The perimeter shooting has been a disaster for the Bulls thus far at 40.9 percent for the season and 22 percent on threes, last in the league.

It’s also become clear that shooting the three successfully is vital in this NBA.

Deng says he can make the shot, but remains more comfortable just inside the line.

“I think we have guys who shoot the three (well),” said Deng. John will shoot the ball better. Pargo. Kirk (Hinrich) will shoot the ball better. And I’m not afraid if it’s the right shot to take I’ll shoot it. But I try to stick with my game. I feel we have enough shooters on this team.

“When I’m in the gym I take a lot of threes,” Deng says. “I know Scott Skiles made a point of me coming off the three. The only reason I really came off the three was because of my wrist surgery. My rookie year I shot a lot of threes until I had my wrist surgery. That limited my range and I took a lot of midrange shots and went away from the three. It fits my game better. I feel more comfortable inside the line. I practice it. If I need to take it I’ll take it. But it’s not the focus of my game.”

Meanwhile, as the Bulls prepare for the Cavs on TNT Thursday, Deng will get most of the time trying to contain LeBron James with Tyrus Thomas remaining home with the flu. The NBA has issued teams guidelines this season and has discouraged players with fever from coming to the arena. Coach Vinny Del Negro said it’s possible Thomas could join the team Thursday, though that seems unlikely.

Rookie James Johnson played only in the blowout loss in Boston, but it’s likely he’ll play Thursday with the rotation down to eight players and Pargo and Rose still recovering from injuries and limited in playing time.

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