Thursday, October 7, 2010
Deng finding new life under Thibodeau
By Nick Friedell
Each day as members of the Bulls file out of the Berto Center they have to trek past a black stanchion emblazoned with the team's logo and website. As soon as practice ends, coach Tom Thibodeau makes his way over to the area, which is located on the side of the gym, and briefs the assembled media on the day's events.
After the rest of the players finish up their drills, one or two of the most popular players (usually Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah) walk over and answer questions. If another player is needed, a reporter just grabs them on their way out, but most players just glide past the mob and ease into the serenity of the private locker room.
Throughout most of training camp, Luol Deng has done just that.
Coach Tom Thibodeau would like to see Luol Deng drive to the basket more this season.
Everyone wants to talk to Rose and Noah, and before he got hurt, Carlos Boozer made a couple appearances in the media zone as well. That's why Deng seemed a little surprised when several media members made a request to speak to him last Sunday afternoon.
"You guys want to talk to me?" he said with a smile as he walked over to the side.
In many ways, the entire episode represented the way Deng, who scored eight points in the Bulls' 88-83 loss to the Mavericks on Thursday, is being portrayed on this Bulls team. He is the forgotten man. He is the man most fans wouldn't mind seeing leave town if it meant landing a superstar such as Carmelo Anthony in his place. He is the man fans have both loved and questioned, especially after he signed his $70 million deal a couple seasons ago.
Lost in all the questions surrounding Deng and his future in Chicago is this simple, undeniable fact: If the Bulls win this season, Deng is going to have to be a major reason for their success.
That's exactly the way he wants it.
After struggling to stay healthy over the past few years (he's missed 64 games over the past three seasons), Deng, 25, believes this season is going to be better.
"I feel great," he said recently. "I'm real happy that I got to play in the summer. Last year, with my injury, I didn't really play until training camp. This year I kind of came into training camp in better shape, from being healthy, that has meant a lot."
Deng spent a portion of the summer playing for Team Great Britain, as it prepares for the London Games in 2012. While that extra practice certainly helped, it seems that Thibodeau's new offense is going to help the veteran forward more than anything else. At times under Vinny Del Negro, Deng would disappear during games. He averaged almost 18 points last season, but there were plenty of times when he would score 10 or 12 in the first quarter and you wouldn't hear his name during the rest of the game.
Deng and Thibodeau believe that will change.
"I think my game is going to look a lot different," Deng said. "I think this offense allows me to move again. I'm moving, I'm cutting. This offense really fits well to all of us. A lot of times in the last few years I stood around a lot. The way we play now, it's a lot of movement and that's going to help all of us."
Thibodeau, who has gone out of his way to praise Deng several times since being introduced as coach earlier this summer, believes that Deng is only getting better.
"I think he is still on the way up," Thibodeau said. "I think he has shown that he is more than capable. He's had some really good years in the league. I think sometimes he goes under the radar a little bit and maybe you're not paying attention to him as much as you should, but I think he's a complete player. When I look at him, he rebounds, he plays defense, he runs the floor, he moves without the ball, he knows how to execute. He does all the things that I think help make your team better, and we want him to continue to do that."
Deng is looking forward to adding the constant motion back to his repertoire.
"That's my game," he said. "I'm excited even at practice. I've been doing a good job of it. I've been talking to [Thibodeau]. With the way we're playing, there's just so many different ways I can move without the ball. I find myself all over the floor, which is real good. It allows me to use my instincts and play."
Aside from the renewed motion, the newest wrinkle to Deng's game is the three-pointer. He is looking forward to showing people how much he has expanded his range over the summer. After connecting on only 49 threes over the past four seasons, the long-range shooting will be a welcome addition for a team that is always looking for more bombers.
"I'm going to shoot a lot more threes," he said. "Coach wants me to. I've been shooting a lot of threes in practice, but that's another thing with the offense; I'm finding a rhythm, finding myself in different spots, and the more we just keep practicing, the more I'm going to get the hang of it. We're starting to look better and better."
Thibodeau is encouraging Deng to take more open shots, but he doesn't want to change his game entirely.
"I don't want to take away from what his strengths are," Thibodeau said. "I think his versatility really is to run the floor, to move without the ball, his mid-range game, and now he's added that corner three, and he looks comfortable from the wings. So if he's open, and the ball's swung to him, I don't want him to hesitate on it. He's proven that he can make it, particularly from the corners.
"But I also don't want him to forget about attacking the basket; he puts a lot of pressure on people when he puts it on the floor. It's a way to get some easy scoring opportunities, and it gets your opponents into foul trouble, so that's what I want him to continue to do. But if he's open at the three, I don't want him hesitating."
After watching him work over the first couple weeks of camp, Deng's teammates are convinced that he will have a big season.
"I think Tibs is going to do wonders for Lu," Noah said. "I think the last couple years, Lu's job was just to shoot open jumpers. But I feel like his slashing is something we're definitely going to use more and his post-up abilities and things like that. So I think that Lu's somebody who is definitely flying under the radar, but he is somebody who's very motivated right now and playing very hard, and I think the new system is definitely going to help him."
After all the ups and downs he's had in Chicago, it's hard for Deng to believe that he is now the longest-tenured member of the team.
"It's a little weird," he said. "But it is what it is. I feel like guys like Joakim, Derrick, even though I've been here longer than them I feel like we've [all] been here just as long. But there's a lot of guys I've seen come and go."