Sitting in front of his locker before last Friday's game in Boston, forward Luol Deng couldn't help but recall his most recent visit to the TD Banknorth Garden. That was last May, when he watched as the Celtics routed his Bulls in the seventh game of a back-and-forth first-round series. "I wanted to play so bad," says Deng, who was sidelined by a broken right tibia in late February, which caused him to miss the rest of the season. "But my leg just wasn't getting any better. It just wouldn't let me."
Stung by fan criticism that he was babying his injury after signing a six-year, $71 million contract extension the previous summer, Deng slunk into the off-season. "I felt like I let everyone down," says Deng, 24. He responded by adopting a punishing workout regime, often bringing his meals so he wouldn't have to leave the training center. "There were times I would literally say, 'Luol, go home,'" says Bulls G.M. Gar Forman. "There was almost a fear that he was overdoing it." The result: Deng added 14 pounds of muscle to his 6'9" frame (he now weighs 235) and reduced his body fat from 11% to 5%.
How well Deng plays this year will determine if Chicago can again be a factor in the postseason. Ben Gordon's free-agent defection to Detroit leaves the Bulls short a 20-point scorer. They are hoping that Deng, who averaged 17.0 in '07--08, will be it. And after playing small last year with Derrick Rose and Gordon—both 6'3"—in the backcourt and 6'6" John Salmons at the three, the Bulls believe that Deng's return at small forward will improve their defense.
Deng's reacclimation on offense is complicated by the fact that he and Rose, the Bulls' top option, prefer to operate out of different sets. Rose is most comfortable in the high pick-and-roll, which allows him to use his explosiveness to get into the lane. Deng favors a motion offense in which the ball swings around and he makes catches on the move. Says coach Vinny Del Negro, "They are different, but there are more positives than negatives [when both are on the court]. We try to get Luol slashing to the basket and using his mid-range game as much as we can."
In just his second year Rose has already established himself as the face of the franchise, but the case can be made that the Bulls are most effective when employing a Deng-friendly offense. In a season-opening 92--85 upset of the Spurs, Chicago had six players in double figures, led by Deng with 17 points. In their next two games, losses at Boston and Miami, the Bulls failed to find that same scoring balance. Against the Celtics, with Boston stuffing the screen-and-roll, Deng scored only four. "It really affects me when we don't move the ball," says Deng. "I don't get into the rhythm of the game."
The Bulls need to get Deng in rhythm with their offense if he is to be playing in meaningful games next spring.
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Sign of Relief
Shelden Williams may never develop into the star the Hawks expected him to be when they drafted him fifth out of Duke in 2006, but at least he's flourishing as the backup to one in Boston. Although Williams (below) failed to stick with three teams in his first three seasons, Celtics G.M. Danny Ainge was encouraged by reports from former coaches and executives about Williams's work habits and signed the 6'9", 250-pound power forward to a one-year deal this summer. The move is already paying off: With Glen Davis out for six weeks with a broken thumb, Williams averaged 8.7 points and 7.3 rebounds through three games in relief of Kevin Garnett.
GREG NELSON (DENG)
MOVING FORWARD Deng prefers sets in which he gets the ball on the go, but the Bulls often rely on a screen-and-roll game.
BRIAN BABINEAU/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (WILLIAMS)