CHICAGO -- Luol Deng is sick of people trying to figure out what's different about his game this season. Through 32 games he's only averaging two tenths of a point more per game (17.8 compared to 17.6) than he did last year, so the numbers back up his point.
But something seems a little different. He's hitting a few more 3-pointers this season, but it's something more than that. Deng, 25, is playing in a comfort zone that hasn't always been there during his seven-year career. He seems happier now more than ever on the floor.
What is it about coach Tom Thibodeau's system that is so much different for him?
"I'm really done comparing years and all that," Deng told me a few days ago. "Coach Thibs is a different coach. He's a great coach. We got a different team. A different group of guys. We're playing well together. It's just a bunch of different things you can put into it, but I'm not really trying to pick and choose what was different. We just got a good team. We know what we're trying to do. We just got to keep doing it."
But what is it? What is do different about what Deng is doing on the floor this season compared to years past?
"We're winning," Deng said. "The only thing I would say is I'm shooting more threes. But I feel like it's a different system. It's totally different. I'm scoring in different ways. Just consistency. Bringing something to the table every game."
In other words, Deng isn't sure exactly what the difference is, but he can feel it, too. His game has changed in several subtle ways this season, it's just that he seems to get lost in the shuffle playing behind Derrick Rose, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah. His game isn't particularly flashy. Same goes for his personality. And there are still times he seems to disappear on the court during key stretches, at least offensively -- with so much other star power on this Bulls' team, there are times you can simply forget that Deng is out there. But to those who watch the young forward day in and day out, they know that Deng is playing some of the best basketball of his career this season.
"Lu's been terrific," Thibodeau said recently. "He's averaging almost 18 points a game. And again, I don't measure on one or two games, if a guy hasn't made shots. I look at more the total season, or 10 or more games, what's going on. But Lu has proven he can score a lot of different ways for us, whether it be through his post up, the catch and shoot, slashing, cutting type game. And he's a very efficient scorer. And now, of course, adding the three [point shot] has made him even harder to guard."
Rose puts it a little more succinctly while discussing Deng's play this season.
"He's doing good, man," Rose said. "Where he's ballin'."
Deng seems to have finally settled into a role that suits him best: He's the third offensive option on a very good team, essentially an $11-million dollar man lurking in the shadows. If you forget about him, he'll hurt you. He'll play solid defense most of the time, and he'll get you almost 20 points a night, but he'll do it in the flow of the offense, so you don't have to run as many sets for him compared to Rose and Boozer.
"We're great," Rose said of Deng's comfort level as a complimentary piece. "Knowing that he got his flow going, got his game going. And he's been doing a great job attacking the basket, where he's trying to get to the line, getting rebounds. He's big for this team where everybody comes into the game looking to stop me or Booz, where Lu, you'll see where he'll have a couple of games where he'll score 20-something points, or 30 points, so that's huge."
What's been huge for Deng's confidence this year is the fact that Rose seems to be going out of his way to get the forward into the flow of the game early. The young point admitted as much recently, and Deng appreciates the support.
"It means a lot to me," Deng said. "I know, especially in the fourth quarter, we're going to go a lot to Carlos. We're going to go a lot to Derrick. So I try to purposely come out very aggressive in the first quarter. I know that sometimes, someone else might have it going, or I might be missing shots, but when that happens you try to bring something else to the table. But early on in the game, especially in the first, I try to come out aggressive."
It's not just the support of his teammates that has helped Deng become more successful this year, it's the support of his new coach. From the moment Thibodeau was hired last June, he went out of his way to praise Deng and talk about how underrated he was. There's no question when you watch Deng play, he has bought into everything the first year head coach is selling. He actually notices one particular similarity between Thibodeau and a legendary coach from his past, Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski.
"The one similarity I would say is just off the court," Deng said. "They're both very easy to get along with. They're always teaching. Not just basketball, but just life in general. They always have a good point. Seem to know a lot more, not just about the game, but just how to help you prepare and everything ... that's one thing that really helps me a lot. I think, depending on the relationship I have with the coach, or whoever it is, the person, I think a lot of times, you fight more and you try harder for that person just naturally."
While the numbers may not back it up, Deng seems to be trying even harder to fit into his role this season. He also seems to be having a lot more fun than ever before in the process.
"I'm having a lot of fun," he admitted. "I've never been -10. It's a good position to be in. It makes it a lot easier going home and coming to work every night."
For Deng, that may be the most important difference of all.