Four months ago, former Timberwolves head coach and president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau threw a drowning Luol Deng a withered, old rope and pulled him onto the Minneapolis shore. There was little chance he was ever going to positively contribute again, let alone see any meaningful minutes.
Even Thibs, who was the biggest proponent of his former Chicago Bulls heydays and was hellbent on putting the band back together, knew that the 33-year-old castaway was joining the Timberwolves purely for moral support and to help guide the youngsters. In the 40 games that Thibodeau was in charge of the Wolves this season, his former wing and defensive go-to guy managed a hair under 33 total minutes, all of those coming late in blowout wins and losses.
Those 33 minutes were already a huge upgrade over the 13 total minutes he received in the entirety of his last season with the bottom-feeding Lakers. Although, the veteran minimum deal he signed is merely a shaving of the 4-year, $72 million deal the Lakers handed him two seasons before deciding they didn’t want him.
From the outset, it was clear the 15-year vet wanted nothing more to escape his L.A. prison, and show he can still contribute.
“After the past few years, I just want to be around people that actually believe in me,” Deng said at media day.
But it wasn’t until Thibs was canned, and the Ryan Saunders era began, that Deng had the belief firmly instilled. In the 11 games under the new Minnesota regime, the 6-foot-9 forward from South Sudan has featured in eight games — all in meaningful situations.
It all started in a big win over the New Orleans Pelicans in early January. Saunders, on the advice of his assistant coaches, hurled Deng into the mix during a second quarter that wasn’t going the Wolves way. To repay the faith shown in him, Deng quickly sliced through for a cutting layup and followed it up with a corner triple to give the Timberwolves the lead and momentum back.
In the post-game press conference, Saunders, who is actually younger than Deng, was quick to pile the praise on his newfound X-factor.
“Luol Deng,” he stated emphatically when talking about player’s readiness.
“I hope everybody realizes how great of a professional he is. For him to stay ready throughout the year, he comes in late at night, he’s there for all hours. And for him to stay ready and come in and play meaningful minutes like that and get five quick points, you just can’t say enough about him.”
With the coaching staff’s trust now clearly implanted in him, the two-time All-Star has gone on to experience a mini-renaissance in the games following. In the eight outings including that Pelicans tilt, Deng has averaged 6.8 points and 2.5 rebounds in 14.5 minutes per game, doing so while shooting a scorching 54.5 percent from the field and 42.9 percent from behind the 3-point arc.
Deng has consistently shown a basketball IQ that helps him get buckets off cuts and post-ups, even with his athleticism waning. In the play below, a give-and-go with Karl-Anthony Towns is all it takes to get an easy deuce. This may be a simple play, but it’s one the Timberwolves don’t use enough. Because of that, he catches the defense by surprise with a quick basket cut, putting Towns’ improved passing ability to good use in the process:
When he isn’t making savvy cuts that keep the defense on their heels, Deng has shown flashes of being still being able to create scoring opportunities for himself out of the post. In his season-high 15-point outing against the Utah Jazz, he turned both of his post-up chances into gold. First, he bullied a mismatched Donovan Mitchell and dropped home a deft left shoulder hook shot, then he took advantage of Kyle Korver with a twine-tickling fadeaway jumper in the second half.
With size and strength on his side against many wings, hammering mismatches with Deng post-ups add a neat little wrinkle to Saunders’ offense. And one that opposing coaches will rarely consider planning for:
While his scoring inside the arc has been a pleasant surprise to all Timberwolves fans, it’s been his outside shooting that has made Luol Deng a valued member of the rotation. He has always been a serviceable long-range shooter (33.2 percent for his career), but his aforementioned 42.9 percent clip over this last stretch of games has been well above what we’re used to seeing from him. Obviously, it’s a small sample size so it’s quite likely he regresses, but it’s been very encouraging nonetheless.
If you ask Lu, he will tell you differently. When speaking with Zone Coverage’s Dane Moore, Deng placed his improvement solely on his tremendous work ethic.
“Credit to just really stickin’ with it. I know the game. Early in my career, I didn’t shoot a lot of 3s but that’s changed with where the game’s went the last few years. I’ve just been shooting a lot of 3s and workin’ on it,” he said.
Defensively, it’s clear that 2011-12 All-Defensive Team Luol Deng is no longer with us today. He is still far from a train wreck though. The defensive instincts and know-how will never fade away, and he rarely stands out in a bad way on that end.
Even without the defensive skill that made him such a valuable commodity throughout the prime years of his career, Deng has become the role player that few thought still remained. Even his biggest fan, Tom Thibodeau, didn’t want to play him.
As Robert Covington, Tyus Jones, Jeff Teague, and Derrick Rose continue to wear street clothes during games, Luol Deng has been one positive of the injury bug casting its horrible spell over the Timberwolves’ roster.
He has risen from the depths to become an unlikely rotational player this season, becoming one of the more underrated feel good stories. Even if he does go back to his role as a bench dweller once the Wolves are healthy, Deng has proven he still has some gas left in the tank.
Perhaps he has even played his way into another contract in Minnesota or elsewhere next season.