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Luol Deng is headed to his second straight All-Star Game, so why does the Bulls forward still feel so under-appreciated in his own city?
NBA All-Star weekend is big for the sake of being big. It is bright lights and loud music, unabashed showmanship and shameless histrionics. It is a place where choreographed dance moves are more important than making the extra pass. It's an event that mostly uses basketball as a guise for a three-day party.
Which is to say: NBA All-Star weekend is essentially everything Luol Deng is not. Yet as festivities prepare to get underway in Houston, the Chicago Bulls small forward will be a part of the celebration for a second straight year.
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Don't feel ashamed if you hardly notice him. There will be brighter stars doing bigger things at the Toyota Center in the coming days. The All-Star Game is built around highlight reels plays, the type that require the sort of jaw-dropping athleticism Deng does not possess. This isn't the place for tooth-and-nail defense, dependable spacing or basketball IQ. But it's all of these attributes and plenty of others that make Deng a worthy recipient of the honor. He is Chicago's pacemaker, a selfless wing who has done everything and more the Bulls have asked of him over his nine NBA seasons.
It didn't always look this way. There was a time when Luol Deng was considered soft. There was a time when Deng had been deemed overpaid. He was often mentioned him in the same breath as Ben Wallace and Alfonso Soriano, first ballot inductees in Chicago's Hall of Bad Contracts. Perhaps back-to-back All-Star appearances seems unremarkable for a player pulling an eight-figure salary. For Luol Deng, it's a reason to celebrate the NBA's most dependable workhorse. It's a trigger to appreciate how far he's come.
Deng is still only 27 years old and already has a personal narrative that has zigged and zagged all over the map to reach where it's at today. Luol Deng is now a recognized laborer, a tireless and vital cog in the Bulls' sterling machine. He is the worker damn near killing himself to place a single stone in Tom Thibodeau's great pyramid. He makes the whole thing go.
For the last two and a half seasons, there hasn't been a more physically taxed player in the NBA. Deng finished fourth in minutes per game during Thibodeau's first season in Chicago in 2010-11; he led the league in minutes last year and is again tops in the NBA this season. Deng tore ligaments in his left wrist over a year ago and it's yet to stop him. Deng needs surgery, but he wasn't about to sit out for a couple months when his team was already missing Derrick Rose.
Just four seasons ago, this was the same player accused of exaggerating an injury in the local media and even by some within the organization.
The Bulls don't exactly hand out big money extensions to just any player, a lesson Ben Gordon learned the hard way. Deng did too with an arduous negotiating process before agreeing to a five-year, $71 million contract just before the start of the 2008-09 season. Deng would play only 49 games that season before being sidelined by a stress fracture in his right tibia, an injury that would cause him to miss Chicago's rather epic first-round playoff series with the Boston Celtics.
Deng had his money in the bank, some thought. He didn't want to be out there. The accusations came in hard and fast and from every angle. You could tell it killed Deng. From a 2009 story in the Chicago Tribune:
"What hurt me the most was articles came out asking how tough I was and saying I didn't want to play," Deng said. "It's unbelievable hearing stuff like that. I'm here because of . Why wouldn't I want to play?
"Sometimes people take struggling on the court to extreme levels. I want to get better. I don't mind someone saying I'm not good enough. But it hurts me more when somebody says you're faking an injury. That didn't make sense to me."
And then there was the ordeal Deng dealt with this past offseason, an internal battle over his right to play for Great Britain in the 2012 Olympics. Deng's family fled war-torn South Sudan when he was a child and sought political asylum in South London. The opportunity to represent Great Britain clearly meant the world to Deng, though whispers persisted that the Bulls wanted him to have wrist surgery and rest his legs after another insane Thibodeau-induced workload. But as has been proven time and again, you cannot stop Luol Deng when he puts his mind to something. Like it or not, there was Deng leading the Great Britain in points, assists and steals despite constant double teams.
It's becoming a trend: Do not tell Deng what he can't do. Before Thibodeau arrived, the book on Deng was that he was the king of the long two-pointer. So much for that. Over a three-season span, Deng upped his three-pointers attempted per game from 0.4 to 1.2, then to 4.1. He made them at a 35 percent clip during Thibodeau's first season, and improved to nearly 37 percent the following season.
After suffering injuries that cause him to miss significant time in 2007-08 and 2008-09, Deng was a player who wasn't durable. Cut to where we're at today, with Deng playing hurt and leading the league in minutes.
There still isn't much glory in being Luol Deng, but it's better now than it was before. Deng has turned into the player the Bulls envisioned in 2007, when he averaged 26.3 points and nine rebounds per game on 58 percent shooting against the defending champion Miami Heat in a first-round series victory. Now, it isn't hard to argue Deng as underpaid, someone who could see a raise when his contract expires after 2014.
Back-to-back All-Star appearances are nothing to scoff at, but Deng almost still feels under-appreciated. Chicago is obsessed with Derrick Rose, and fellow All-Star Joakim Noah has become the de facto fan-favorite this season in his abscense. Luol Deng merely punches the clock. At this point, the Bulls finally seem grateful for the work.