Luol Deng is coming off back-to-back strong games: 18 points, 9 rebounds and 7 assists in a win over the Hawks and 26 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists in a blowout victory over the Jazz. Deng also had 3 steals in each game while playing with a deep thigh bruise.
After the win over Atlanta, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau called him “The glue of this team.”
On Saturday, Michael Jordan went one better, saying Deng is the key to Chicago’s title hopes: “He’s the deciding factor for this team in winning a championship. If he plays well, that helps out their team quite a bit.”
Praise from MJ? That’s quite a leap for a guy who has long been considered overpaid, overrated and (more often than not) unwanted by Bulls fans. After Deng signed a huge contract extension back during the summer of 2008, people expected him to be an All-Star. Years later, Lu has yet to make an All-Star game and has waged a nearly constant battle against tags like “injury-prone” and “soft.” Yet now the perception is starting to change.
Has Deng’s game changed? Let’s take a look.
Last season, Lu averaged 17.6 PPG. This season, he’s averaging 17.6 PPG.
Last season, he shot 46.6 percent from the field, 76.4 from the free throw line and 38.6 percent from downtown. This season, his shooting percentages are 45.5, 74.5 an 33.8, respectively.
He’s averaging 5.9 RPG this season. That’s down from 7.3 last year.
His player efficiency rating has dropped from 16.1 last season to 15.4 this season. His rebounding percentages are all down. His usage percentage is about the same (21.9 last season and 21.2 this season).
Some analysts have noted Deng has “become more of a slasher” and has been “taking fewer jump shots.”
According to Hoopdata, Deng is currently averaging 14.3 FGA versus 14.5 last season. He is attempting 4.1 shots at the rim this season versus 4.3 last season. And his free throw attempts stand at 4.2 per game this season versus 4.7 last season. So, by the numbers, Deng isn’t attacking the basket any more this season than he was last season.
But if we further dissect where he’s shooting from, we can isolate the biggest change in Lu’s game. Last season, he averaged 6.7 FGA from 16-23 feet and ony 1.2 threes per game. This season, he’s taking 3.6 FGA from 16-23 feet while launching 4.2 three-pointers per contest.
In essence, Deng is substituting three-point attempts for a few attempts he used to chuck up from 16-23 feet. This explains why his effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage have both gone up despite his lower FGP and 3P%. After all, they adjust for the relative worth of twos and and threes.
As near as I can tell, Deng’s game has remained essentially unchanged. The main differences seem to be a) he’s playing more minutes, b) he hasn’t gotten injured, and c) he’s taking more threes than long two-pointers. In terms of effort and productivity, Deng is still Deng.
The biggest difference is that the Bulls are winning more than they have since the Jordan era. And winning does more to change perception than anything else. Staying healthy has helped. There’s no doubt about that. But Deng has been a solid contributor to the Bulls for years. He hasn’t quite been able to raise his game to All-Star levels, but he works hard, plays great defense and does whatever he’s asked to do on a nightly basis. He may not be consistently great…but he’s consistently solid for this team.
And he has been for years. It’s just that now, finally, people have to take notice.
Update! In case this post confuses anybody, I’m not saying that Deng doesn’t deserve praise. I’m saying he’s deserved it for a long time and is not getting it thanks to the team’s success.
Update again! As some of you have mentioned in the comments, another difference is that Deng is now the third or fourth option (behind Rose, Boozer and/or Noah) and therefore expectations for him to perform like a first or second option no longer apply. As a result, his occasional “Where’d ya go, Lu?” games are less onerous (and less disastrous to the team) than they used to be.