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Luol Deng's great journey continues
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By Sam Smith | 12.14.2014 | 5:39 p.m. CT
Life, no matter how much we may otherwise prefer, becomes what occurs. Almost as if it’s preordained. Especially in sports. The team that wins is supposed to win, correct? So we will never know what could have happened if the Bulls kept Luol Deng last January. Would the Bulls have been out in the first round of the playoffs last season? Could they have made a run at least to the conference finals given how poorly so many Eastern playoff teams performed? But then what about now? The Bulls might not have been able to add Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic to the team if Deng remained and especially with a contract renewal.
Perhaps no one understands better than Deng, whose life has been an artful navigation through the shoals of displacement and discomfort. His ship of life now has docked in Miami, and even if leaving his second home port of Chicago was difficult, Deng says he’s still enjoying the journey.
“It’s great. I’m loving it,” Deng said before Sunday’s game about playing for the Miami Heat. “Still getting used to it. It’s a little bit different. But it’s been great so far. I just had to move on. I had to focus on what I need to do in my career. When it happened (the Bulls initial trade to Cleveland), it was definitely a shock because I had been there for so long and never in that situation. But now it’s really just focus on me, myself playing and how good I can be and just being healthy.
“There are a lot of people in Chicago that I miss,” added Deng, who said he met up with some of his former teammates Saturday night. “I was there one year out of high school. So I basically grew up there. There are a lot of people you never hear about that helped me a lot with my career and helped me become who I am that I’ve known for a long time and I still stay in touch with. So seeing those people day-to-day, that’s what I miss about Chicago.
“I have to focus (now) on what I’ve got to do,” added Deng. “Tough to watch (the Bulls) or not tough to watch them, it doesn’t help me or do anything for me. I’m here now and have to focus on what I’ve got to do here. I enjoyed every minute of it. I said it since Thibs came to Chicago, I really enjoyed basketball. I enjoyed those years there and I feel like I played my best basketball there. Now I’ve got to focus on what I’ve got to do while I’m here.”
It’s been an at times faltering start for Deng, averaging 14 points and 4.7 rebounds and shooting 50 percent and 39 percent on threes. The Heat has been stricken with illness and injuries and Chris Bosh was out for Sunday’s game. The team comes in 11-12.
“My role right now we’re still figuring out ways because we’ve had so many different lineups,” said Deng. “We know D-Wade and Bosh are going to be the main guys. I’m going to be the next guy. Defensively, depending on the perimeter and D-Wade, sometimes we want (him) off the guy, so I’ll take the guy (Deng guarded Jimmy Butler Sunday). It changes. We had so many injuries and guys sick and in and out of the lineup and guys not playing much together. So we’re still really trying to find out who we really are and how we can become consistent.
“It’s a bit different in terms of the system and the minutes that I’m playing.” said Deng, averaging 31 minutes. “So far it’s been great games and OK games and not so great. It’s kind of been up and down. Hopefully try to get that consistency. I always go through it with every system and situation I go through. Hopefully get back to being consistent.”
As for the Bulls, Deng said he sees growth, as expected.
“Great team,” said Deng. “The thing with Thibs and Thibs’ system is they’re going to get better. As the season starts, you lose some games. But the new guys and guys who are there, it’s repetition. It’s the same thing every day. By the second half of the season, you become really consistent. That’s why that system is always so great.
“Nah, we all seen it,” Deng went on about the development of buddy Butler. “I’m really proud of Jimmy more than anything. I knew he would get to that. And Griff (assistant Adrian Griffin) doesn’t get a lot of credit. Griff really helped me a lot. If you see before Thibs came, where my career and the way I was playing and the system and Griff always staying on you. I give Jimmy a lot of credit. We did a lot together, coming early to shoot, going in at night. He stuck with it. It’s really good to see. I’m just really proud of him and how he’s playing.
“I think it’s always going to be strange for me facing the Bulls,” Deng admitted as he enthusiastically greeted Chicago media members in the Heat locker room before the game. “Obviously because of Chicago. But just the guys on the team are still really the same guys. You just got Boozer gone and now it’s Gasol instead. But most of the guys are still really the same faces. It’s more than a game with those guys. When I see them, it’s friends, it’s family, it’s guys I’ve done a lot with and know a lot about me and I know a lot about them.”
And Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau as well, whom Deng often has credited for the resurgence in his Bulls career that led to back to back All-Star game appearances.
“He gave us everything he had each and every day,” said Thibodeau. “Terrific player, terrific person, great leader. Same old Lu (in Miami). He’s strong in every area of the game. He can shoot, he can pass, he can put it on the floor, he moves extremely well without the ball. He can guard multiple positions. He’ll make tough plays, you’ve got to pay attention to him at all times.. As time goes on he’ll get better and better for them, but he’s just a tough matchup. He does a lot of things that sometimes don’t get noticed that just help you win.’
“I have great appreciation for all that he did for our team,” said Thibodeau. “He helped lift us up. You think about those guys, and I look at Kirk (Hinrich) and I look at Lu, you know (Andres) Nocioni. There were a lot of guys on that team that helped lift that team out of the lottery. And then the second go ‘round was basically a team floating around .500. And those guys, Derrick (Rose), Joakim (Noah), Lu, you can’t say enough about them. It takes a lot to make a commitment to win, and to win consistently, and then to be able to handle the adversity that comes you way. I have great respect for what those guys did when Derrick went out. A lot of teams would have folded. I think Joakim, Taj (Gibson), Kirk, Lu, they weren’t going to let that happen.’’
Though for Deng it’s been an unusual year given the trade to Cleveland after the failed contract negotiation, his peripheral involvement in the Atlanta recruitment which caused questions because of references to Deng being from Africa and then being the guy who, sort of, replaces LeBron James in Miami.
“Difficult in terms of my name being out there,” Deng said about the last year. “I’ve always been low key, do my thing, do what I got to do and get on with it. It’s the first year, if you put it all together, where your name just keeps popping up. It really goes back to the playoffs against the Heat where I missed it. Just your name constantly being in the media and the first nine or 10 years, anytime your name was out there, it was positive or charity or something like that. That’s been the change.
“I really try to ignore it as much as I can, focus on the positive and just keep going, keep grinding and working hard,” said Deng. “I know what got me here. It hasn’t been an easy road from the start. Nothing that happened took me off guard or made me change my ways. I just kept doing the same thing. And everything that’s going on, I can’t help that.”
It’s the unsinkable Luol Deng.