The “change” in Luol Deng’s game

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.”

Really?

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.

32 Responses to The “change” in Luol Deng’s game

  1. Adam@Adam.com'
    Adam March 14, 2011 at 3:24 pm #

    Serious question for you guys:
    Will Deng ever be an All Star? Will winning 1 championship do it? Will winning a couple?

    Somehow there’s a perception that Bosh > Deng but I don’t see it.

  2. jth95@cornell.edu'
    Jeremy March 14, 2011 at 3:35 pm #

    When I first read this I thought you were somehow dismissing the praise for Deng by claiming that his numbers are basically the same as last year. I realize you might also be saying that this praise has been long deserved. Either way I think that he has been much more than simply ‘solid’ for this team. It’s not just perception or numbers, it’s that this guy seems to come up big whenever the bulls need him most. When the offense starts to struggle (and by that i mean when rose starts to struggle) Deng is there trying to get to the rim, trying to get something started. I’m so glad we didn’t trade for melo. This is a near perfect team. Everybody knows their roles and everyone works together to accomplish their collective goal. Deng is an indispensable part of this unit.

  3. kuwabarra@mail.ru'
    Mr Bull March 14, 2011 at 3:42 pm #

    His on my bulls t shirt!!!GO LU!

  4. bullsbythehorns@gmail.com'
    Matt McHale March 14, 2011 at 3:43 pm #

    “Serious question for you guys: Will Deng ever be an All Star? Will winning 1 championship do it? Will winning a couple?”

    The Bulls snuck up on people this season. Everybody wanted to talk Celtics, Heat and Magic in the East. Even when the Bulls were right there at the All-Star break, it was seen a fluky. Now people are getting it. If the Bulls continue to perform consistently over the next few years, Deng very well could get his due. Depends. It’ll be tough with LeBron and ‘Melo at his position in the East.

    “2.When I first read this I thought you were somehow dismissing the praise for Deng by claiming that his numbers are basically the same as last year. I realize you might also be saying that this praise has been long deserved.”

    Long deserved.

    If you go back through the archives, I have been a pretty strong defender of Lu, particularly when there was all that buzz about trying to flip him for ‘Melo. I think Deng brings a lot to the table and that the rap he’s gotten has been largely unfair. I’m glad that, with the team finding greater success, he’s getting some recognition.

  5. shadowjosh85@yahoo.com'
    Crazee March 14, 2011 at 3:50 pm #

    Deng was always an effective defender, but most people seem to believe he’s gone from good to All-Star caliber at defense.

    I realize defense is subjective and that advanced metrics for all sports have yet to really reflect defensive ability(even baseball, where advanced metrics have the most use). Good basketball minds tell me he’s a very good defender. Do you think defensive ability should contribute to his All-Star chances? 17 ppg and elite defense is arguably more valuable than 22 ppg and terrible defense. If he can get his rebounds up, he can be a 17ppg, 7rpg, 5apg guy with very good defensive skills…

  6. sguldin3@gmail.com'
    Scott G. March 14, 2011 at 4:05 pm #

    Great post. I think we need to file the third “main difference” as yet another reason why the Thibs-over-VDN upgrade is so amazing, so miraculous, that it almost feels criminal. What frustrated many of us about Lu’s game the past couple years was his undying affection for the long two — often literally one step (or half-step!) inside the line. If guys on my high school team did that in practice, they were immediately doing push-ups. Now, as you point out, that shot has all but disappeared from Deng’s game, and he’s shooting 3s instead. A source of deep frustration for so long has thereby been addressed. Thanks Thibs! Thanks Luol!

  7. pjreiman@gmail.com'
    Paul March 14, 2011 at 4:06 pm #

    I think the main reason pan has turned to praise is that we now see him as the 3rd/4th option/deliverer (Jo will never match the stat line, but from a PER viewpoint Lu is #4). A few years ago we needed him to be the man on offense. Now we need him to pick up his quiet 20 points and do all the dirty work he’s done for his entire career.

  8. Jimmy March 14, 2011 at 4:11 pm #

    I will be the first to admit I was disliking Deng coming into this season (due to some chicago fan homerism…not going to lie).

    However, I think besides the fact that we are winning this season, the biggest difference is that two things:

    1. Deng is now contributing late in games and during big matchups. He has shown that he can now handle the pressure, which was a big negative I had on deng coming into this season.

    2. He is now the 3rd option. Last year (and the times when Ben Gordon was hurt) we expected him to be that 2nd option. I believe having Boozer and our deeper bench has taken the pressure off deng on the offensive end.

  9. bob.edwards47@yahoo.com'
    BoppinBob March 14, 2011 at 4:16 pm #

    Deng isn’t a flashy player. He plays defense first then thinks about offense. He is also one of those guys that does the little things that don’t make the box score stats. He is not very vocal, but he leads by example, always working. He doesn’t take time off. I doubt that DoAll will ever make an all-star roster because the scorers are the ones that et elected to the all-star roster. The all-star game is not about basketball it is about scoring. I have not watched an all-star game in a very, very long time, sometime back in the early 90’s. IMO Deng is the second best player on the Bulls. Thank God we did not trade him.

  10. Jimmy March 14, 2011 at 4:17 pm #

    Oops sorry Paul, my 2nd pt is a steal from your post…lol next time I should read all the posts before posting!

  11. KH March 14, 2011 at 5:10 pm #

    This guy still isn’t nearly as good(with the exception of shooting jumpers) as a guy like Andre Igoudala someone a lot of people kill for his contract just like they kill Deng for his. Lets get real. Team becomes good and all of sudden Deng is so good. When you look at where LD was drafted he is about a B- pick.

  12. loadobullmail@gmail.com'
    Alex Sonty March 14, 2011 at 5:20 pm #

    It’s the defense and less long twos, I’ve been saying all season. In terms of getting to the basket, it isn’t so much that he’s slashing more often, but doing so with more physicality. Hence, creating more space between the ball and his defender to shoot a higher percentage at the rim. The physicality doesn’t show up in his FTs, but more shots aren’t just moving from the long-two range to the three-point range; also from the 10-15 ft. range to the 3-9ft. range.

    As for “glue of the team,” Deng played a lot of minutes at the four with Noah and Boozer out. And it was never to strategically go small, but to match up better in stopping other teams from converting possessions while Omer was still an insane foul machine and Taj was playing as if his concussion lasted four weeks.

    As for Deng’s rebounding, that’s more schematic. Thibs doesn’t like too many people attacking the glass; instead scheming to put the rebounding weight hevily on one or two guys with the others positioning for long rebounds and closing out on long-range shooters to better prevent wide open second-chance points.

    Just as you’re “not saying Deng doesn’t deserve praise,” I’m not saying he’s an All-Star and refuted this when the topic was relevant. I also called Deng overpaid when the season started, but looking at threes around the league, I’d say he he’s upgraded to having an equitable salary.

  13. Ryan March 14, 2011 at 5:26 pm #

    I think Lu’s defense alone has shown us what he is worth. When he checks SF’s – he can use his length to pester them, when he guards 4’s – he can use his speed and smarts to beat them to the spots (drawing charges, getting a block, or allowing help to come), and his team defense is outstanding. Can someone explain how he and Boozer could play for an amazing coach (coach K) in Duke, but have so many defensive differences. Deng played for Vinny, and a dash of Scott Skiles (and Boylan) and Boozer was with another ‘Great’ in Sloan. I like the idea of having Boozer in the post with his offense, but our team defense is weak at best when he is on the floor. It just makes by brain cramp-up watching how slow Boozer’s rotation are. Otherwise, I appreciate his leadership, post spins, and his screaming ‘AND ONE’ calls after every layup.

  14. bullsbythehorns@gmail.com'
    Matt McHale March 14, 2011 at 5:38 pm #

    “The physicality doesn’t show up in his FTs, but more shots aren’t just moving from the long-two range to the three-point range; also from the 10-15 ft. range to the 3-9ft. range.”

    The Hoopdata numbers don’t support this statement. According to Hoopdata, Deng averaged 1.3 FGA from 3-9 feet last season. This season he’s up to 1.7 FGA. That’s a pretty marginal increase. From 10-15 feet, his FGA have gone down from 0.9 FGA to 0.7. Again, marginal.

    Again, based on Hoopdata’s numbers, the only change in Lu’s FGA are from 16-23 feet and from downtown. Basically, he’s stepping back behind the arc for about three shots per game. That’s it.

    His conversion rate at the rim has gone up. That may be due to the increased physicality, I guess. But I think it’s also due to more fast breaking, improved spacing and better play calling in general. It doesn’t hurt that he has better overall teammates that actually draw defenders away from him.

  15. loadobullmail@gmail.com'
    Alex Sonty March 14, 2011 at 6:32 pm #

    “Marginal” is probably the more accurate word to describe Deng’s improvement. The element of physicality is employed in ways where, yes, he isn’t inducing fouls, but in ways that could be called as charges in other spots. Deng isn’t bowling people over, defenders aren’t flopping, and he’s better maximizing his opportunity to get quality shots in those instances than flopping himself. Maybe he and defenders should be flopping more, as there are easily one or two drives per game where there’s no whistle, yet one could go either way.

  16. Alex March 14, 2011 at 6:51 pm #

    On the Chicago tribune website there was an article that posted the stats and roster when the bulls won their first title in 91. Lu’s stats are nearly identical to Scottie’s that year. Not sayin he is at the same level but his impact on the Bulls throughout his career has gone unappreciated and its good to see him start getting some love.

  17. jbisch420@gmail.com'
    The Bisherman March 14, 2011 at 7:15 pm #

    It’s still somewhat surprising to me that Lu’s PER has decreased this year, because he’s certainly passing the eye test better than last year. I love that Thibs has him taking more 3’s as opposed to last year when I wanted to rip my hair out watching him launch 20 foot J’s. Overall though, his play hasn’t changed all that much, I just think he was always solid but never got any recognition because the Bulls have been so mediocre. I also gotta agree with some of you, Luol just looks like he’s driving more physically than years past, something that’s probably to do with being healthier. I’m stoked the Bulls have so many good perimeter defenders, Deng is as solid as they come, Rose has improved drastically and can no longer be called a liability and Ronnie Brewer wreaks havoc with all those steals. At this point I would say that Deng is one of the more underrated players in the league and essential to the Bulls championship aspirations, Let’s hope he can stay healthy and Thibs learns to get him out of the game during garbage time.

  18. bullsbythehorns@gmail.com'
    Matt McHale March 14, 2011 at 8:46 pm #

    “On the Chicago tribune website there was an article that posted the stats and roster when the bulls won their first title in 91. Lu’s stats are nearly identical to Scottie’s that year.”

    I love Lu, and I will defend him in many cases, but his stats were only close to Pippen’s ’91 numbers at a glance. Big differences being Pip shot 52 percent from the field (to 45.5 for Lu) and averaged 6.2 APG (to 2.8 for Deng). He also grabbed more boards (7.2 to 5.9) despite playing fewer minutes (36.8 to 39.1).

    The advanced stats tell more of the story. Pip’s PER was 20.6 (to 15.4 for Luol). His rebounding percentages were better, his assist percentage was more than double (23.5 to 11.9). He also had a higher offensive rating (114 to 110). Interestingly, they both had a D-Rating of 102.

    Anyway, for a direct comparison, use this link:

    http://www.basketball-reference.com/play-index/pcm_finder.cgi?request=1&sum=0&p1=pippesc01&y1=1991&p2=denglu01&y2=2011

    Pip was knocking on the door of the superstar locker room that season. No offense to Lu. I’m just sayin’.

  19. inkybreath@gmail.com'
    inkybreath March 14, 2011 at 10:18 pm #

    Boy, I was surprised to see his 3pt % at .338 for the year. At a glance, I expected it to be higher. I expect his average to keep increasing as he is now committed to that shot and has more space to make it clean.

    Once this team is accepted as a new powerhouse, everyone will get reevaluated by the league and Deng will be seen more as an All-Star. Boston had a host of All-Stars this year, right? Did they all deserve their nods?

    Once we get Deng to the big stage and the nation sees what he can do, his name will stay in contention for the various honors – all assuming he continues this level of play or better.

  20. unbiased March 14, 2011 at 10:42 pm #

    Obviously Lu’s rebounding will drop with the addition of Booz on the team. I don’t know if you guys remember, but Kobe been praising him for quite a while. When Kobe was demanding his trades and all the talks with the Bulls were heating up, the Bulls were gonna package Lu to get Kobe. But Kobe said he wouldn’t go to Bulls if Lu wasn’t staying there. (remember kobe had the only no-trade clause in his contract.) Maybe not your average fans, but Luol been getting respect from his peers.

  21. Luvabull March 14, 2011 at 11:19 pm #

    Alex stole my thunder a bit. But I wonder if Scottie being around the team so much has allowed him to exert some influence on Deng. And as Bisherman said Luol is definitely passing the eye test. It might not show up in the PER stats or the advanced metrics. But Do-All-Deng looks like he is playing tougher defense then years past, especially against league all-stars. He looks like he’s more aggresive when going to the basket and not shying away from contact.
    As far a the rebounding numbers going down a bit this year, I think can be attributed to Boozer being on the court. Whether on offense of defense, he just appears to be more confident. And that has increased noticably even from the begining of this season to now.
    Finally, his assist numbers have increased this year. That may also be attributable to Boozer being on the receiving end.

    Oh by the way, as a Bulls fan in NJ, I see a lot more media coverage on the Knicks. And the Bulls fans here will be happy to hear that after only 11 games, there are already whispers about if Melo has what it takes.

    I also have disagreed with the notion that Luol is the 3rd or 4th option. I would definitely put him above Boozer in terms of importance to the team. Probably have him tied with Noah as 2 and 2A.

  22. inkybreath@gmail.com'
    inkybreath March 14, 2011 at 11:32 pm #

    By the way, Matt – one of the most interesting games of the year and no recap? What gives?

  23. cliniclysick March 15, 2011 at 1:35 am #

    Yes Matt, you’ve provided us with a lot of great reads and spoiled us (so to speak) with analysis, previews and recaps that go much deeper than that copy-paste crap we get on ESPN, NBA.com, SI and the likes.
    Yours, even more than Sam Smith’s articles, are the ones I enjoy the most. So when you miss one, withdrawal symptoms kinda kick in :) Great win vs Utah, a bad second half and they still scored 50, could’ve gone worse.

    btw, going for #1 tomorrow night! Taking care of biz against the Wiz…

  24. tyler.tallen@yahoo.com'
    Tyler March 15, 2011 at 1:57 am #

    This is why stats don’t tell the whole story.
    I think few people would say they prefer the Deng of the last two years over Lu this year, even in spite of the numbers being down this year. A lot of it has to do with perception changing with not just winning games, but also how we perceive a player in different offensive/defensive systems. Del Negro’s offensive gameplan (if there was any) was pick and roll with Rose, and everyone else being spot up shooters. Missing spot-up shots is a LOT more noticeable than missing shots in an offense with high ball movement. Missing shots in Thibs’ offense has less of a negative impact on spectators’ psyche, because it was the result of actually looking for the best shot, as opposed to finding a bail-out spot-up shot in Del Negro’s offense.
    Hinrich was also the unfortunate victim of similar treatment by fans, when in reality, it was more the product of what sorts of shots he was missing–just like Deng.

    Either

  25. tyler.tallen@yahoo.com'
    Tyler March 15, 2011 at 1:58 am #

    This is why stats don’t tell the whole story.
    I think few people would say they prefer the Deng of the last two years over Lu this year, even in spite of the numbers being down this year. A lot of it has to do with perception changing with not just winning games, but also how we perceive a player in different offensive/defensive systems. Del Negro’s offensive gameplan (if there was any) was pick and roll with Rose, and everyone else being spot up shooters. Missing spot-up shots is a LOT more noticeable than missing shots in an offense with high ball movement. Missing shots in Thibs’ offense has less of a negative impact to the team (and spectators’ psyches), because it was the result of actually looking for the best shot. It isn’t just finding a bail-out spot-up shot, like in Del Negro’s offense.
    Hinrich was also the unfortunate victim of similar treatment by fans, when in reality, it was more the product of what sorts of shots he was missing–just like Deng.

    Either

  26. Kelly March 15, 2011 at 5:03 am #

    Go Lu seems appropriate, he’s the g(o)lu(e) of the team. It think you hit the nail on the head. He’s long overdue for the praise for what he’s always done.

    Perhaps the difference is that glue is more appreciated when there are pieces to glue together and a carpenter to do the gluing. It’s not so much that what he does is different, it’s that what he does fits.

  27. chitown4life March 15, 2011 at 1:31 pm #

    @ Every one that thought Deng was a bust.I have been saying this for a long time if you look back at my post . “DO ALL Deng ” has been a solid player for our Bulls he does the things that do not show up as well as the things that do show up on the stat sheets. I for one am glad the bulls never made the trade for Mello ,just because Deng is a Bull always has been and always will be . He is part of the Chi town family, for those who don’t like him tough cookies and for those that do, we get to continue to see him play in do his thing to help our team win the ring.I’m gonna keep this short DO All has never been over paid our team just got him at the low for the future compared to what other players will make his deal will be a steal, especially for what he brings to our team and the game. So to the haters get over it Deng is a big part of this team finally he is getting all the notice he should of gotten a long time ago..Peace

  28. Jimmy March 15, 2011 at 4:55 pm #

    Matt, I agree with cliniclysick,

    We have been spoiled by your in depth and witty input for game recaps…maybe the Utah games recap is coming later today…*crossing fingers*

  29. bob.edwards47@yahoo.com'
    BoppinBob March 15, 2011 at 5:28 pm #

    I have always been a DoAll Deng fan. I am glad he is begining to be more valued by the average Bulls fan. He is not flashy, He does things that are not statisticly measurable, like etting back on defense, spacing the floor, causing loose balls, making the extra pass. He s a piece to the puzzle that could be a championship, much like Pippen, Grant, Cartwright, Paxson et. al.

  30. bullsbythehorns@gmail.com'
    Matt McHale March 15, 2011 at 5:34 pm #

    Regarding the recap to the Utah game: That was totally, totally my bad. I was out celebrating St. Patty’s Day Chicago-style on Saturday night. Fortunately, the bar I was at, The Blarney Stone, was showing the game. Plus I DVR’d it and watched it again. Sunday was just a rough one and I copped out on posting a recap. I’ll try to put something together tonight for the sake of posterity.

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