Hot Commodity | Luol Deng’s Stock is Soaring
In this past season, Deng averaged a career-high 18.8 points and was one of only nine players in the league to average that much and shoot 50 percent or higher.
Posted May 30, 2007 | By Anne Stein
Athletes are always looking for new training methods or gadgets that will make them stronger, better and faster than the competition.
It’s not unusual for beefy NFL players, for example, to practice yoga and Pilates, or for Olympic runners to train barefoot. Others use meditation and visualization, or fiddle with their diets in that ever-urgent quest to gain an edge.
The Bulls’ Luol Deng has his own secret weapon, and judging from his stats—besides more rebounds and steals, he averaged 18.8 points per game this year, vs. 14.3 last year and 11.7 his rookie season—it seems to be working. But don’t go running to your local health club or personal trainer to learn about Luol’s technology.
It’s a whole lot simpler than that. It’s called sleep, and lots of it.
“The last two years, I thought I was Superman, that I wasn’t going to get tired and that I was still young,” says Luol, who’s just turned 22 on April 16. “Well, okay, I’m still young, but with practices, travel and an 82-game season, you do get tired. So the key for me is sleep.”
After each practice, the third-year small forward takes a nap. But nighttime is when the real stuff kicks in. If the team’s not traveling, he fits in up to 16 hours of precious, rejuvenating sleep. “I get up early and go to bed early,” says Deng. Along with a sleep schedule resembling that of a newborn, he also puts in a ton of extra time in the gym.
When John Paxson, Bulls Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations, is working late at night and hears the “thwap-thwap” of a basketball coming from the practice floor beneath his office window, it’s usually the young forward from Sudan. “I tell him all the time how much I appreciate his work ethic, how badly he wants to be a really good player,” says Paxson. “Those are the types of guys we love having around here.”
The extra shooting, weight lifting and, yes, yoga and Pilates that Deng did last summer, combined with that fabulous commodity called sleep, have all paid off. The 6’9” forward added 13 pounds to his frame, and now weighs in at a healthy 220 pounds.
Luol’s first stop in America was at Blair Academy in New Jersey, where he quickly established himself as one of the top prep players in the nation.
As the seventh overall pick of the 2004 NBA Draft, Deng, along with No. 3 pick Ben Gordon and second-rounder Chris Duhon, was immediately dubbed a gym rat. When he first arrived in Chicago, Luol vowed to the media that he’d stay in the gym overnight if he needed to, and so far he’s kept his promise. “I always felt that the Bulls got a big steal in getting Luol because if he had stayed another year or two at Duke, he certainly would have been a No. 1 pick in the Draft,” says Duke Assistant Coach Chris Collins, who still regularly chats with Deng.
All three teammates, part of the Bulls young core, know the meaning of hard work because all come from winning programs—Deng and Duhon from Duke University and Coach Mike Krzyzewski, and Ben Gordon from 2004 National Champion Connecticut and Coach Jim Calhoun.
Deng’s the youngest of the three, having chosen to leave college after his freshman year to enter the NBA Draft. But even in high school he was known for his marvelous work ethic. “When we recruited him, we felt he’d be a star player both in college and the NBA,” Collins says. “We felt he was a player who would get as good as he was able to because he’s such a hard worker.” And under a demanding coach like Skiles, notes Collins, Deng’s really found his niche.
Just compare his rookie stats to this year’s numbers, and you already see a rising star who’s taken on more responsibility and is trusted by his coach to handle the increased duties.
In his first season, which was cut short after 61 games by a torn ligament in his right wrist, Deng posted averages of 11.7 points (4th among rookies), 5.3 rebounds (6th among rookies) and played 27.3 minutes per game (6th among rookies). In addition, along with teammate Ben Gordon, he was picked by the NBA’s head coaches to the 2004-05 All-Rookie First Team. It was the first time in franchise history that the Bulls had two players selected to the First Team, and in another bit of history making, the 20-year-old Deng was the youngest Bull ever to garner First Team accolades.
Luol’s sophomore season was even better, despite the fact that he spent 10 weeks after the wrist injury in a cast and the entire summer rehabbing the wrist. It meant that, although he could work on lower body strength at the Berto Center (between wrist rehab sessions), he couldn’t devote any effort to that much-needed upper-body strength.
A less-than-perfect summer, however, didn’t stop Deng from posting dazzling second-season stats. He played in 78 games (a late-season, freakish head-to-head collision in practice with former Bull Eric Piatkowski resulted in a concussion that kept him from playing a full, 82-game schedule), starting 56 of them. His average points per game went up to 14.3, and his minutes increased to 33.4. His rebounds went up to 6.6. And, instead of watching the Bulls playoff games from the sidelines, which he was forced to do because of his wrist injury in 2005, he averaged 10.2 points and 30 minutes per game in the Bulls 2006 first-round playoff run vs. the Miami Heat.
At Duke, Deng was one of only two players in the ACC to rank among the top 10 in scoring, rebounding, field-goal percentage and blocks as a freshman.
“He plays with more composure out there,” says Skiles. “He’s learned what he can get away with, he knows his opponents—he’s just a much more experienced player.”
“Luol’s solid,” raves teammate and Bulls point guard Chris Duhon. “He understands the game and his strengths and weaknesses. He’s a great cutter on the weak side, and that’s what he tries to exploit every time he goes out there.”
Luol’s main goal going into this season was consistency. “I wanted to show that I take what I do seriously, and try to perform my best every game,” says Deng. “I feel as though I’ve improved a lot, but there’s still room for more improvement.”
Luol’s always set the bar high for himself, and so have his coaches. Leading up to the playoffs last season, he was given increasingly difficult assignments, guarding some of the greatest players in the league—LeBron James, anyone?—yet he posted some of his strongest performances in March and April. His 21st birthday was especially memorable for him and Bulls fans: On April 16, 2006, Deng scored a team-high 26 points to lead Chicago over the Miami Heat (117-93) and clinch an Eastern Conference postseason spot—their second consecutive playoff berth.
Besides showing that he’s a more consistent player, Luol’s also proven he’s tougher. Take that nasty James Posey foul in late December that knocked him hard to the floor and onto his surgically repaired wrist. Luol came back two nights later in Toronto, playing 41 minutes and scoring 25 points. The next night he notched a then career-high 32 points in 42 minutes at home against Cleveland.
“He’s a very strong-minded kid,” says an admiring Paxson. “He’s unique in that way. I saw one of the great ones in Michael Jordan, who played through a lot of things other guys wouldn’t think of doing. Luol feels that way too—he feels a responsibility to always play. A lot of guys would have waited until they felt better after falling on a surgically repaired wrist. There’s an uncertainty with that fall and how you’ll shoot the ball. But he made a commitment to the team. No one would have questioned if he went out and shot poorly, but he didn’t accept that. He wanted to be out there on the floor.”
Last summer Luol traveled back to Africa for the first time since his family was forced to leave his native continent in order to take part in the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders program.
By now, many fans are familiar with his story. Born in the Sudan and a member of the Dinka tribe, which produces some of the tallest people in the world (including fabled NBA center Manute Bol, one of Luol’s mentors), Luol is the eighth of nine children. His father, Aldo, served in the Sudanese parliament before becoming minister of education and transportation, but the family was forced to flee after civil war broke out, leaving nearly all their belongings behind. Luol was just four when the family ended up in Egypt, where he attended local schools and learned to speak Arabic (his other languages are English and his native Dinka).
It’s also where Luol and his three older brothers first met Manute Bol. “We had a court, and my brothers would play outdoors, with rims barely hanging in there,” he recalls. “I was very young and wasn’t really playing. Manute came and saw guys running up and down, probably traveling every time. He got everyone together and taught them how to pivot, about shooting, layups, and how not to travel.”
The brothers stuck with the game and “forced me into it,” says Luol. (His oldest brother is playing professionally in England, and sister Arek and another brother, Ajou, played college ball in the U.S.) Four years later, the family was granted political asylum in England and settled in London. It was another new life, new country and new language for Luol, who clearly is just as versatile off the court as he is on.
“I’ve seen a lot and experienced so many different cultures,” says Luol, “and that’s helped me a lot in my career and helped me mature as a person.” His athletic skills blossomed in his new country, and by age 13 he was invited to join England’s 15-and-under national teams in basketball and soccer. Fortunately for hoops fans, Luol focused on basketball, playing for England in the European Junior Men’s Qualifying Tournament in Portugal, where he averaged 40 points and 14 boards, to earn MVP honors. He eventually led England to the finals of the European Junior National Tournament, where he averaged 34 points and was again named tourney MVP.
At age 14 he crossed the Atlantic to attend high school (along with his sister Arek) at Blair Academy in Blairstown, New Jersey. The 6’5” freshman wore number 33 to honor his favorite player, former Duke star Grant Hill. Though homesick, the quiet youngster thrived at Blair and became a tremendous leader, says Blair’s Head Coach Joe Mantegna. “He’s about as high a character person as you can get, and no one will ever outwork him,” says the coach, who still chats with Luol from time to time. “His teams have always won, and he’s always had unbelievable success.”
Only 22 years old, Luol Deng looks to have only touched the surface of what should be a long and outstanding NBA career.
(Layne Murdoch/NBAE/Getty Images)
With hundreds of colleges showing interest, it was Duke that eventually won the Deng derby. In his one year playing college ball, he finished as one of only two players in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) to rank among the top 10 in scoring, rebounding, field-goal percentage and blocks.
“He’s so active and has such a great spirit out on the court,” says Chris Collins. “I think he’ll continue to grow because of it.” Despite his youth, every coach who talks about Luol Deng talks about how mature he is. And no doubt that’s where Deng’s philanthropic side comes in.
For the television broadcast of the 2006 NBA Finals, Deng teamed up with the United Nations World Food Program and the NBA Cares Foundation to tape a public service announcement to generate support for humanitarian relief in Darfur, Sudan. “I need to tell you what’s going on in Sudan, which is where I’m from,” said Deng in his message. “Right now millions of kids are suffering. Their homes have been burned; their parents have been murdered. They need food and shelter.” The message reached an estimated 66 million viewers worldwide.
“For me, it was a great opportunity to tell people what’s going on over there,” says Luol. “It’s a good thing for anyone who’s watching to learn what’s going on.”
For the past three seasons, he’s sponsored holiday dinners and a Christmas shopping spree for local “Lost Boys,” Sudanese orphans who escaped their country on foot and eventually settled throughout the U.S. His dad, who has a foundation and travels between London and Sudan to distribute food, clothing, money and medical supplies, has renamed the foundation after Luol, who’s become more intensely involved with the relief efforts.
Last summer, for the first time since the family fled, Luol returned to Africa to help run an NBA “Basketball Without Borders” camp, in South Africa. He plans to return to Sudan this summer and help build basketball courts.
But the Deng family is also grateful to the other nation they call home, England, and Luol’s serving as ambassador of another sort. As host of the 2012 Summer Olympics, he has been recruited by British Olympic and city of London officials to be an Olympic ambassador and a promoter of British basketball. This summer he’ll spend some time with the British National Team playing in Europe for an Olympics tune-up.
So far, Luol’s been on British radio and TV touting his nation and promoting the sport, and he’s even trying to get teammate Ben Gordon, who was born in London, to consider playing for Britain in 2012. (“That’s a long ways off,” says Gordon, when asked about the invitation, “but I’ll definitely consider it.”)
Despite his maturity, his heavy-duty ambassadorial duties and his love of sleep, Deng’s also a guy who likes to have fun. He lives near teammates Andres Nocioni (“He won’t let me baby-sit,” jokes Luol. “I asked him and he says no!”), Ben Gordon and Thabo Sefolosha, and he’s tight with everyone else on the team. “We’re a young group and we’re all close,” he says. “And that helps us out a lot on the floor.”
Like most 22-year-olds, he loves video games and movies, but he also, believe it or not, loves to bowl. “I like it because it’s competitive,” says Luol, who bowls leftie and who once bowled a 140 game. “Me and my brother like to go at it, but I’m not very good, and everyone always get the best of me.”
Off the court, his overall philosophy is to appreciate the fans that recognize him and to help out family and friends as much as he can. “I try to do things for others because I see how lucky I am to be in the position I’m in,” he says. “Hopefully, in the future I’ll be able to do more. I have bigger dreams than what I’ve done so far. I’m a big believer in that I’m here for a reason, and I don’t want to forget where I’m from.”
An important cause dear to Luol’s heart is looking after Chicago area “Lost Boys,” Sudanese orphans who escaped their war-torn nation on foot and eventually settled in America. Besides providing tickets to numerous Bulls home games, each year, Deng hosts a massive Thanksgiving Dinner and takes Chicago’s Lost Boys on a fun Christmas shopping spree.
(Randy Belice/NBAE/Getty Images)