Bulls' Deng taking fresh approach

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Born into privilege in Sudan, his family had to flee to escape a civil war while his father was jailed for three months. The family of nine children lived in poverty in Egypt for four years, then was granted political asylum in England in 1993. Only 9 when the family arrived in London, Deng learned a new language and honed his basketball skills to the point he was awarded a scholarship to Duke after he moved to the United States. After one college season, he was a first-round NBA draft pick.

So, how upset could he be that some people in Chicago were angry with him for daring to become injured after signing a megacontract in the summer of 2008?

"I'm a nice guy, so everyone is always nice to me," the Chicago Bulls' forward said. "But you go through a season like I did where you're playing hurt and you're not playing well, you start to, you know, see where everyone's heart is.

"That's cool. I think that's just a learning thing you go through. I never like to get hurt, but I want to use this injury to help me learn something."

One thing Deng learned is that a long record of sterling play, sportsmanship awards and widely recognized charity work wasn't enough to keep some people from questioning his heart after a succession of injuries sandwiched a contract negotiation. The Disney movie that was his life and career through the 2006-07 season, when he averaged 18.8 points on 52 percent shooting while playing all 82 games, and then 22.2 points in the playoffs, soon turned into a Dickensian documentary, in relative terms.

In short order, he turned down a five-year, $57 million contract offer from the Bulls in the fall of 2007, saw his scoring averaged dip to 17 points over 63 games the following season as back and Achilles injuries took their toll, then signed a six-year contract for more than $70 million in the summer of 2008, thereby increasing expectations. He followed by averaging just 14.1 points through 49 games last season before a stress fracture in his right tibia, which he had played with for a month, ended his season in February.

The image of a player who had grown soft amid his newfound prosperity was only further entrenched when the Bulls took defending champion Boston to seven games in a gripping first-round playoff series in which four of the games produced a total of seven overtime periods. Chicago fans couldn't help but wonder what difference Deng might have made in a series divided by such fine lines.

Deng really did have a stress fracture last season, as the MRIs proved, but that didn't stop the detractors, who weigh in yet.

"I really wish the Chicago sports media would be more critical of Deng," one fan wrote in an online response to a Chicago Sun-Times article published on Sept. 27. "For some reason they give him a free pass for sucking. The New York media would be calling for his head on a stick by now."

The upcoming season offers Deng an opportunity for redemption, and it comes at a convenient time for the Bulls, who need every weapon they can find to challenge Boston, Cleveland and Orlando in the Eastern Conference.

Deng appears to have cleared the physical obstacle of recovering from last season's injury. He worked out diligently throughout the summer, usually twice a day at the team's practice facility. He spent so many hours there that he took his meals with him, microwaved them and ate in for convenience sake. Through the advice of a nutritionist, and eating more frequent meals, he gained 12 pounds without sacrificing quickness.

He gave indication of that in the Bulls' opening exhibition victory last Friday over the Pacers, when he had 15 points and five rebounds in 25 minutes. The most encouraging element of it was his 9-of-9 contribution from the foul line, the result of the slice-and-dice style of seasons gone by.

Deng rejoins a much different team than the one for which he formerly starred, however. The Bulls had undergone a makeover just 10 days before his final game in February by acquiring John Salmons and Brad Miller from Sacramento in a deal that improved the roster's talent and the front office's long-term financial flexibility.

Deng will have to find a new niche within the Bulls' revamped lineup and coach Vinny Del Negro's style, which is less structured than that of former coach Scott Skiles. Ben Gordon, who averaged 20.7 points last season, is gone, but Salmons, who averaged 18.1 points in the playoffs, and Miller, who averaged 10.3, are back. So is Rose, the Rookie of the Year point guard who averaged 19.7 points in the postseason and seems destined for superstardom. Add to the mix first-round picks James Johnson and Taj Gibson, both of whom are 6-foot-9 forwards, like Deng, and Deng's role appears as uncertain as it is crucial.

Point guard Kirk Hinrich, a starter during Deng's breakout season in '06-07 but now a backup behind Rose, figures Deng will determine how to become a factor again.

"He's one of our best players, and you know what you can expect from him every night," Hinrich said.

Deng expects to regain the level of his glory days, but not necessarily through scoring.

"I know I'm going to play hard and compete," said Deng, who returned to London with the Bulls for Tuesday's exhibition game against Utah. "I'm mature enough now that I know winning is the No. 1 thing. I want to come into the season and show everyone that. I'm not looking to take every shot. I'm trying to play a team game. I think that's going to rub off. I think we're going to be more of a team and I think everyone is going to benefit from that.

"I'm excited about it. I really missed it when I was sitting out. I'm willing to put more into it than I did before, because I realized I loved it when I was sitting out."

Sitting out half a season is nothing compared with the frustration of sitting out four years in Egypt. Dealing with doubters is nothing compared to dealing with looters in an impoverished homeland. Dealing with an injury is nothing compared with dealing with the horrors of a refugee camp.

Deng has experienced and witnessed too much to be disheartened.

"Nothing was ever given to me," he said. "I know from growing up how you can have something and then not have it the next day."

And also how you can get it back.