Luol Deng finally makes his mark


Feb 9

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Luol Deng is not one to show much emotion or give away too much of himself. After all, this is a man whose childhood was marked by being a refugee and going from wealth in Sudan to poverty in England, which sheltered him and his family.

Deng knows perspective. But if Deng isn’t going to be shouting on the outside, I know he has to be dancing on the inside with his addition, finally, as an NBA All-Star.

To paraphrase Derrick Rose at his contract signing, yes, Lu, you finally made it.

Not that it hasn’t been a wonderful and successful journey for Deng from Wau in what is now the independent country of South Sudan to the zenith of professional sports in the NBA.

And though recognition is not what Deng has sought, somewhat like his native land his has been a struggle in the NBA to gain notice and credibility.

He’s a player who in high school was regarded as the nation’s second most promising prep player after LeBron James, but who has spent years with the Bulls, if not failing, but failing to live up to expectations established for him. Never by Deng, but by those who chart greatness. Deng, to them, never measured up.

Ironically, he makes the All-Star team with another first-time All-Star, Andre Iguodala, the player he was most compared with in the 2004 draft and whom the Bulls agonized long over. Should they take the athlete or should they take the all-around, fundamental player? It was a much second guessed choice for many years.

Luol Deng and Ben Gordon
In fact, the Bulls never even planned to select Deng. They were looking for an offensive minded forward then and made a deal with Phoenix to get the No. 7 pick in the draft so they could trade it to Indiana for Al Harrington. But when the Bulls acquired the pick, Indiana changed its mind and asked for the No. 3 pick, which the Bulls were saving to use for Ben Gordon. Indiana wouldn’t budge, so the Bulls said the heck with them and would use the draft pick.

Iguodala was intriguing, a super athlete on a team that lacked one and being built with Eddy Curry, Tyson Chandler, Kirk Hinrich and Jamal Crawford.

The Bulls went for Deng, and it was a culture shock of a different sort. Yes, Coach K could yell, but Deng hadn’t experienced much like Scott Skiles. While Krzyzewski would be loud, there’d be a hug later. Scott didn’t hug. Deng curled up within himself. He didn’t have an athlete’s body, more long from his native Dinka tribe, which produces some of the world’s tallest people. But it wasn’t a flexible body and it was an inflexible coach.

To this day, it’s no coincidence Deng has some of his biggest games against Skiles teams, and he did return from his injury Saturday to play Milwaukee and help lead the rout.

Deng had missed the McDonald’s game in his senior year with a foot injury, and again he’d be hurt late in his rookie season with a serious wrist injury. He’d miss the last month of the season and the Bulls first playoff appearance in seven years. But he was a bench player and not considered vital while Gordon was a sensation being named Sixth Man of the Year and barely beaten out for Rookie of the Year by Emeka Okafor.

Deng would come off the bench again his sophomore season as Gordon again grabbed the headlines and Deng seemed an after thought even though he averaged 14.3 points and the Bulls put a scare into the eventual champion Heat in the playoffs. That was the season the Bulls had traded Curry after his heart issues and the Bulls took a step back until those playoffs.

Deng then seemed to have his breakthrough season, averaging 18.8 points as Skiles’ offense gave Deng the slashing opportunities to take advantage of his strengths. Deng wasn’t the type of player to beat an opponent off the dribble, not the last shot type closer that Gordon was becoming. Deng’s game was more subtle, but solid. It seemed an All Star bid and all league status was inevitable.

But it would just begin the ride down.

First there was Kobe Bryant. Bryant was furious with the Lakers and demanding to be traded. He wanted to come to the Bulls. This was the start of the 2007-08 season, and Deng’s name was prominent. The Lakers would certainly need him as part of any package, though it later was learned the Lakers were just putting off Bryant and had no intention of dealing him. Bryant didn’t want to come to a stripped down team, so he wanted Deng to stay. Deng was just, as Mongo once said, “pawn in game of life.”

Ready to break through, now Deng was wondering where. The Bryant stuff finally dissolved. But then came the Pau Gasol talk. The Grizzlies were looking to trade their big man. They liked Deng, but they also wanted expiring deals. Deng, though he didn’t publicly express it, was feeling like a chattel, a piece to move around a board. Life had become cheap in his native home’s civil war, and now he was in rumors and speculation every day.

A proud man kept quiet, but he was unhappy.

It was Bulls managing partner Jerry Reinsdorf who finally, albeit quietly, made the decision. They were going to keep Deng. It wasn’t unanimous, but someone had to break the tie. That would lead to the Bulls decision to give Deng the big contract over Gordon, who was annually the team’s leading scorer. Gordon would never get over what he viewed as the slight.

Deng and Gordon were up for contract extensions to start that 2007-08 season as the Bryant trade talks were bubbling. Deng supposedly was offered $57.5 million and Gordon $50 million. Both rejected the offers. Gordon was the most insulted, and Deng was the most regretful. Friends close to him said almost as soon as he rejected the deal he regretted it. He worried about injury after previous setbacks, and his game began to suffer. He and Gordon would look one another off to go on their own. They seemed to worry about statistics. Both were unhappy. Skiles was fired, and the Bulls collapsed to a 33-49 record, which would become the franchise’s greatest break as it enabled them to draft Derrick Rose.

The Lakers got Gasol and went on to the Finals. The trade was considered the coup of the year while Deng’s statistics plummeted. Injuries hit him again as Deng missed 19 games with Achilles problems. Those can be serious and lead to a tear. Deng became worried and distracted. Calls mounted for a trade.

Before the 2009-10 season, Deng agreed to a $71 million deal. Gordon passed on a lesser deal and would leave in free agency. But Deng again was hurt, this time with a stress fracture and now a questionable future. It would be the low point. He would play in just 49 games and average 14.1 points, his fewest since his rookie season. Fans and media were brutal. The Bulls had invested badly, it was agreed. Their cap space would be taken up for years. The Bulls would go on to a classic playoff series with the Celtics while Deng watched, barely speaking with anyone.

Questions arose about whether Deng even was faking injury, whether he really was hurt. He sought outside opinions. He was hurt and angry. James was a star and Deng was perhaps the most unpopular player in his community.

Plus, new coach Vinny Del Negro didn’t know how to use him. While the clever Skiles could take advantage of Deng’s activity, Del Negro had Deng stand in the corner to shoot three point shots, hardly Deng’s specialty. The community felt the team had made a mistake and Deng was believing he had.

Deng’s fracture healed and he was determined, at least, to persuade critics he was no quitter. He committed to not missing a game, but a calf injury cost him two weeks in March of the 2009-10 season. His statistics went back up to 17.6 per game, but he was overshadowed by Rose, Hinrich, Joakim Noah and even rookie Taj Gibson.

Luol Deng & Tom Thibodeau

And then came Tom.

Del Negro was fired and the Bulls hired Tom Thibodeau, the longtime assistant who’d been an admirer of Deng’s unique game. Deng immediately bonded with his new coach’s work ethic and Thibodeau began to rely on Deng’s versatility, his defense, his passing, shooting and leadership. For the first time in four years, Deng played more than 70 games as he didn’t miss any, quadrupled his three point shooting numbers and helped lead the Bulls to a league best 62-20 record and a place in the Eastern Conference finals.

And Thursday the coaches who for so long ignored and dismissed him stood up and voted that Luol Deng was one of the best, that he should be among the elite in the NBA as an All-Star at the big midseason game in Orlando in two weeks.

The joke now, of course, is that with Thibodeau a favorite to coach the East All-Stars, Deng probably will play 40 minutes. He’s Thibodeau’s security blanket.

Deng went to social media to express his gratitude Thursday night: “Words can’t describe how happy I am to make my first all star. Thanks to all my supporters especially the coaches who voted for me.”

Luol Deng finally made it. It was a long time coming, which only has to make it sweeter.

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