CHICAGO -- There is a picture of Luol Deng in the hallway of the Berto Center that connects the locker room to the floor.
It's an action shot: Deng is suspended in midair, his outstretched, longer-than-the-line-at-Hot Doug's right arm cocked way, way back, his enormous hand palming the ball. The space between the ball and the rim is what initially draws your eye, but something in Deng's face captivated me.
Deng's countenance, nearly always so serene, looks almost scared in this picture, as if he can't believe he's this high and doesn't know what will happen when he reaches the hoop. His eyes are wide, almost bugged out of his head.. It's a fascinating picture if you look close enough.
Luol Deng has been a very good basketball player for some time, even if he hasn't always been able to show it every night. Even if he doesn't quite dominate one aspect of the game, like 3-point shooting or dunking, two things he doesn't do very often. From the Sudan to Egypt to London to New Jersey to Durham to Chicago, his game has matured and evolved. But this summer, as he recovered from a stress fracture in his tibia, the one that kept him out of the Bulls' thrilling seven-game playoff series with Boston, he was a lot like that guy in the picture. He had no idea what was coming next.
"I sat out the whole summer. As a basketball player, you know when you do that, sit out the whole summer and don't play, you don't know where your game is at when you come back," he said. "I really wanted to come back and show everyone the injury didn't set me back, that I could still play."
Deng has done that this season, nearly every game, night in and night out. He missed his first game on March 1 with a knee contusion, but came back to start Thursday against Memphis. He's averaging 18.2 points and 7.5 rebounds, right around the career highs he set in his breakout season in 2006-07.
It's ironic that Deng, who turns 25 next month, came back to play after a one-game injury absence on this day, March 4, because it was exactly one year ago that the Bulls released a rather tart press release about Deng's stress fracture in his tibia, a lingering injury that finally forced him out of a game.
The release reported that Deng, who had missed significant time in two of his four previous seasons, had an early stress fracture, diagnosed as "mild inflammation along his tibia, with a small irregularity within the cortical bone." But what everyone remembers from that release was this line: "At this point, he will undergo 'active rest,' meaning that he will be encouraged to challenge himself physically, and if symptoms remain minimal, he will be allowed an expeditious return to play."
Deng didn't play again. The Bulls took off with John Salmons filling his minutes, and Deng had to sit and watch and listen and sulk. He had signed a six-year, $71 million contract that summer, coming after a wholly disappointing season that nearly tore this team apart, before Derrick Rose arrived and helped rebuild it.
Deng, painted by some as greedy for turning down an earlier contract offer, knew what people were thinking, because he heard the chatter. He knew what the fans thought, and judging from the release his own team sent out, he must have wondered what it was thinking.
"Nothing really hurt me more than when I heard I stopped playing because I got paid," he said. "Because of where I come from, and what I've been through, that doesn't really represent me or my family. That really bothered me the most.
"I knew I was hurt. The MRIs and X-rays, those don't lie. I tried to play out there, but I couldn't. What bothered me was that people think I care about money more than the love of the game. But the reason I got the money was because of the love of the game.
"I never forget that."
Vinny Del Negro, who knows something about criticism from fans and seeming slights from the organization, can now say he was surprised that anyone questioned Deng's resolve.
"Any critics that questioned his toughness aren't really smart," he said.
As his leg continued to heal this summer, Deng camped out at the Berto Center, walking past that picture as he moved from the training room to the treatment room to the gym. At Bulls media day, Gar Forman said he was getting worried about Deng because he spent so much time at the facility.
"I took food there," Deng said. "I worked out in the morning. I watched TV. I ate lunch. I stayed and worked out again and went home for dinner and went to bed. For me to get back to where I was, I needed that."
Deng said his main goal every night is to fit in, which isn't something some fans want to hear from a guy making his kind of money.
"I can't look at what people are saying or what they want," he said. "I'm mature enough now where I can be the best I can be. Not so much can I go out there and hit 3s or go out there and get to the line 20 times. It's about whatever the game is out there and try to get the best out of it, and make my team win."
Deng came in as a project, a Swiss Army small forward who could do a number of things in the middle of the floor without dominating at any one aspect of the game -- a throwback kind of player. He hit his peak in Scott Skiles' offense, which called for him to cut to the basket and hit a lot of midrange jumpers. He still shoots primarily jump shots, 70 percent according to 82games.com, but is also focused on getting to the line more often. He's averaging five free throw attempts a game, but in February alone, he had five games where he shot double-digit free throws, and 10 overall. Deng had only four such games last year and four in 2006-07.
"I think I'm a lot better than I was back then," he said of his previous prime under Skiles. "It's a different team, the stuff we're doing out there. I changed my game a lot just to fit the system we're running here."
Deng said his latest knee injury is frustrating, considering how consistent he's been this season, with no guarantee that he would bounce back. Before Thursday's game he openly wondered what would happen when he took the floor. Injuries can linger in more than just the body.
"I don't know how much I can do until that ball goes up, and I get a sweat, and feel how much I can do," he said. "The MRIs and X-rays say nothing, so that's a positive thing. The negative thing is it's not going away. Hopefully it's just a really bad bruise and it will pass."
Deng looked fine on the surface. He ran the floor and guarded Rudy Gay, and hit all three of his shots in the first quarter and grabbed three rebounds. He scored 10 in the first half and 23 in the game, playing a game-high 42 minutes as the Noah-less Bulls lost to the Grizzlies 105-96. The injury will probably linger, but the Bulls need Deng more than ever with Noah out for three weeks.
"If Lu plays, we'll love it. But if he doesn't, we've still got to play the game," Rose said Thursday afternoon. "We can't cancel it because he's not playing. If we could, we probably would."
On a team with two stars and the hope of at least one more this summer, Deng could be the guy who makes it all happen just by fitting in.