With a strong outing against the Heat, Luol Deng showed he may have what it takes to get the Bulls to the next level
THE BULLS hope that forward Luol Deng's 33-point outburst in their playoff-opening victory over the Heat last Saturday signaled the emergence of a franchise cornerstone. "He's one of my favorite players because of how hard he plays," Miami coach Pat Riley said after his team's 96--91 loss. "He really did a number on us."
Deng's efficient 14-for-22 performance reversed his frustrations from the first round last year, when he averaged 10.2 points on 42.9% shooting as Chicago lost to Miami in six games. It also helped offset the Bulls' demoralizing loss three days earlier at New Jersey, which cost them the No. 2 seed and a much easier path to the Eastern Conference finals. Yet there is a silver lining in Chicago's fall to the No. 5 spot: If the Bulls want to assess what they need, they couldn't have asked for a better gauge than the defending champs, who have two assets Chicago still lacks—a go-to superstar in Dwyane Wade and a low-post scorer in Shaquille O'Neal.
Could the 6'9" Deng one day be the Bulls' version of Wade? In just his third season the 22-year-old Deng averaged career highs of 18.8 points, 7.1 rebounds and 2.5 assists while shooting 51.7%. His enormous value became clear when G.M. John Paxson refused to include Deng in a midseason trade package for the Grizzlies' 7-foot All-Star, Pau Gasol, the kind of inside presence Chicago covets. "My confidence in Deng is obviously really high," says Paxson. "The kid loves to play, loves to work, and I value that highly—especially when you keep seeing significant improvement from year to year."
Deng's production has increased as his three-point attempts have dropped: from 117 (with 31 makes) as a rookie to seven (one make) this year. He has developed into a slasher and midrange shooter whose points will come within his team's system, much as Pistons guard Richard Hamilton scores without going one-on-one or forcing shots. If Deng can add the ability to create his own shot, he will be able to carry his team in the later minutes of playoff games. "Whatever his potential is," says Chicago coach Scott Skiles, "he's going to reach it, because he works so hard at his game."
Deng's leadership skills should be strengthened this summer during his six-week commitment to the national team of Great Britain, whose basketball program is being rebuilt around Deng with an eye to the 2012 Olympics in London. (He lived in England for six years after emigrating from Egypt, where his family had moved to escape the civil war in its native Sudan.) "He can do for us what Dirk Nowitzki has done for Germany," says British coach Chris Finch, an expat from Reading, Pa. "You can play him at the four because the fours [in Europe] are so much more mobile, and because you can run the offense through him, you can almost treat him as a one."
The other issue—finding a low-post scorer to complement defensive-minded center Ben Wallace—will be resolved this summer, says Paxson. If it becomes clear during the playoffs that Deng and young guards Ben Gordon and Kirk Hinrich are still several years away from becoming the linchpins of a contender, then the Bulls may take a patient approach and try to develop rookie Tyrus Thomas, a draft pick (they have the option of swapping No. 1 choices with the Knicks in June, the last piece of the Eddy Curry trade) or a young vet like restricted free agent Darko Milicic of the Magic. But if Deng in particular proves that he's on the way to stardom, Paxson could speed up his timetable and make a run at Gasol or the Pacers' Jermaine O'Neal. In that sense, Deng holds Chicago's future in his hands.
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On the Warriors, who went 3--0 this season against Dallas and took Game 1 of their first-round series 97--85 on Sunday:
"I think they can knock off the Mavericks. Baron Davis, Stephen Jackson, Jason Richardson and Al Harrington can all shoot from the perimeter; they can also put the ball on the floor and take it to the basket. That gives them four guys who are very difficult to guard. On defense the Warriors are interchangeable for the most part, so they can all switch on the pick-and-roll, and the Mavericks are a big pick-and-roll team. But the main thing here is Davis (above): He's had his detractors over the years, and now that he's back in the playoffs, he's playing with a real chip on his shoulder. Unless his back goes out or his knee starts flaring up again, he's going to kick their ass."