The start of Luol Deng’s tenure as a Laker was a struggle.
While the team was finding ways to win games, beginning 7-5 and closing November at 10-10, his shot wasn’t going in, and he’d yet to find a rhythm within Luke Walton’s offense.
Deng, who signed a lucrative four-year deal with the Lakers in July, averaged just 6.6 points on 33.1 percent shooting and 30.8 percent from three in November in 23.1 minutes per game.
But in December, he’s increasingly looked more like the player that averaged 12.3 points on 45.5 percent FG's and 34.4 percent from three in 32.4 minutes per game for Miami last season.
Forgive the barrage of numbers, but for comparison’s sake, after a season-high 22 points in L.A.’s last home game on Dec. 11, Deng averaged 12.0 points on 48.6 percent FG’s and 38.7 percent from three on the team’s 12-day, seven-game road trip across the country.
I asked Deng in Charlotte on Dec. 20 – after the Lakers couldn’t hold onto a 19–point lead in the game in which key reserve Larry Nance, Jr. hurt his left knee – if he could explain the difference a month has made in his game.
"I just think I’m getting more comfortable with our offense,” the 12-year veteran responded. "I still believe I’m going to keep improving and getting better. I’ve been in situations in my career where I’ve had slumps and struggles. I always stick with it and just keep working."
Of course, injuries to D’Angelo Russell, Nick Young, Nance, Jr., Tarik Black and Jose Calderon haven’t helped matters. The starting lineup and thus the bench have seen many different combinations in December, and it’s delayed, though not stopped, the cohesion process.
Even through the injuries, Deng thinks his rhythm’s been aided by the additional comfortability with and knowledge of his teammates.
"I think part of it, too, when you’re with a new group (is to) realize what you can and can’t do,” he explained. "A lot of times at the beginning of the year, guys were kind of standing still. The way I play, I’m always moving, I like to move the ball. And I think we’ve shown at times how to play that way.”
Deng’s rhythm within the offense is indeed improving, and it also appears that his legs are coming around. In November, many of his jump shots were coming up short … at least according to the ol' eye test.
Walton, who consistently said he wasn’t worried about Deng’s game in November and that he’d come around, wasn't surprised that his shots were short. Not long removed from his playing career in 2013, Walton remembers it taking more time later in his career to find his legs after an offseason without competitive basketball.
Deng wasn’t so sure.
"That’s just you,” he replied when I said it appeared to me he was getting more lift on his shots. "The ball is going in. Every time the ball goes in, people want to come up with what I’m doing different. Honestly I really stick to my work and I’m always working. It’s just having a rhythm.”
I did a Spectrum SportsNet sideline hit to open the next game in Miami on the topic, and longtime Lakers broadcaster Stu Lantz said some of Deng’s improvement could be due to increased rhythm, and some of it due to his legs coming around.
However you want to slice it, the bottom line is that he’s looked better in December than in November.
Last season, the South Sudan native improved as the year went on, particularly raising his play after the All-Star break when Chris Bosh’s season – and perhaps career – was cut short.
In just three more minutes per game but at the four instead of the three, Deng upped his averages from 10.6 points per game to 15.2, his field goal percentage from 43.1 to 48.4, his rebounds from 4.7 to 8.1 and his steals from 0.9 to 1.2.
While he feels his impact will continue to grow this season, Deng stressed the importance of it coming within the team construct. He used the veteran Hornets as a counterexample, a team whose core players are well familiar with one another and the system of coach Steve Clifford.
"Part of the game is just knowing how to play together,” Deng said. "We just played a team that’s been together for a while, and you can see they really know how to play together. That’s our challenge. When you have a new coach, a couple new guys and a young team, the frustrating part throughout the year is the up and down.
"At times you’re going to play great and everyone gets excited, but where you have to be understanding is that it’s a process … we’re going to become a good team as long as we do the same thing every day.”
That will be more difficult for the Lakers considering the absence of Nance, Jr., a key player who was often closing games, for an undisclosed time period with the bone bruise in his knee.
Yet until Nance, Jr. returns, there will be more minutes available for Deng to play the four, particularly when the team goes small with Randle at the five.
Perhaps that will help Deng continue to find the rhythm that’s clearly already coming along since the slow start as the Lakers look to a plethora of home games to try and reclaim their collective rhythm at the same time.