In appreciation of Luol Deng: Bulls legend and top 10 European player of all time

The Chicago Bulls traded Luol Deng last night for a soon-to-be-waived Andrew Bynum and some maybe somewhat useful draft picks.[1]

That Deng, whose contract expires this summer, is being given up for salary cap relief and second rounders is a reflection of the NBA’s financial realities and Chicago’s new long-term direction rather than his value as a player and accomplishments as a Bull. Let us appreciate that value and those accomplishments here as we celebrate the finest player to ever come out of Great Britain (and Sudan).

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Deng, who has never been a dead-eye shooter and has never had above-average athleticism for his position, somehow manages to manufacture 16 points per game and be one of the better perimeter defenders in the league. He is a smart player who knows his role and in many ways epitomises the Tom Thibodeau Bulls: defense first and maximum effort always.

He is by all accounts an excellent chemistry guy who makes those around him better by way of being both a calming force on offense and the rare player who can guard the best wing scorers in the league without requiring double-team help on defense.

As a rookie he was key to the Bulls’ 24-win turnaround from ’03/04 to ’04/05, as they went from being a 23-win team to posting the third best record in the East. Deng ranked fourth on the team in every important statistic: minutes, points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks, establishing himself as the rarest of NBA specimens: a 19-year-old glue guy.

He soon established himself as a two-way force and a quiet leader of the team. His career averages (16.1 points, 6.4 rebounds, 46% shooting) are not the gaudiest, but his value cannot be gauged by statistics alone. His inclusion on two NBA All-Star teams reflects the recognition of his work on the defensive side of the ball and as a winning player.

Three different times in Chicago he was a top-two option and the best perimeter defender on a team that won at least 49 games and made at least the Conference Semi-Finals. He ends his Bulls career with totals of 637 games, 10,286 points and 4,078 rebounds. Over 48 playoff games, he put up 16.7 points, 7.0 rebounds and 2.2 assists and proved time and again to be an absolute gamer.

He never quite managed to help take the Bulls back to the Finals, but things could have turned out differently if not for injuries.

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Still only 28, Luol averaged 19 points per game this season, leading the team in scoring for the second straight year having taken on a larger role in the offense in Derrick Rose’s absence.

Bulls fans will remember him coming up large – 22.2 points on 52% shooting – in the ‘06/07 postseason when his teammates’ shooting went down the toilet. (Actual statistics from their 4-2 second round loss to Detroit: Ben Gordon, 39% shooting; Kirk Hinrich, 38%; Andres Nocioni, 34%.)

They will remember his duels with LeBron James. Deng has held LeBron to 23.8 points per game over their last 10 regular season and playoff matchups – four points below his career average.

They will remember him once upon a time being discussed as the centerpiece of a package deal for Kobe Bryant.

They will remember him twice leading the entire league in minutes per game for the regular season, and averaging a mammoth 44.8 minutes in the postseason last year.

Some perspective: Deng is one of only three players to play over 9,000 combined regular season and playoff minutes between ’10/11 and ’12/13. The other two players: Kevin Durant and LeBron James. Never say that Luol Deng, who also spent the summers of those years competing admirably for Team Great Britain, is not durable.

Deng is one of only five players to play 10 seasons with the Bulls. He is the fourth leading scorer in franchise history behind Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Bob Love. Only two Bulls have ever averaged at least 40 minutes per game over at least 48 playoff games: MJ and Luol.

Not bad for a boy from Brixton, London (by way of South Sudan and Egypt).

Which begs the question: where does Luol rank among the great European players of all time?

Considering him “European” is somewhat unconventional given his Sudanese heritage, his American accent and the fact that even born-and-bred Brits generally self-identity themselves as anything but European. But he captained Team GB at the Olympics, and Britain is in Europe, so let’s roll with it…

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Top 10 European player of all time?

Luol, still with several years remaining in his prime, has already submitted a more stellar career than most European passport holders who have ever made the league.

He is a far more well-rounded and accomplished player than sharp shooter Drazen Petrovic, for example, who was 28 when he died and whose legend has been somewhat inflated after death. Many fans believe Drazen to be a top-five European of all time despite him never making an All-Star Game or establishing himself as a winning player. Where’s the love for Luol?

Here is the case, by the numbers, for Deng being at minimum a top 10 European NBA player of all time:

  • He is one of only six Europeans to ever average at least 18 points and put up a PER of 18 or more in a single season. (The other five: Dirk Nowitzki, Pau Gasol, Tony Parker, Detlef Schrempf, Peja Stojakovic.)
  • He is one of only five Europeans to put up 10,000 points and 4,000 rebounds in his first 10 seasons. (The other four: Dirk Nowitzki, Pau Gasol, Rik Smits, Detlef Schrempf.)
  • He is one of only three Europeans to put up at least 16 points and 7 rebounds per game over at least 45 playoff games. (The other two: Dirk Nowitzki and Pau Gasol.)
  • He is the only European to do all of the above and make an All-Defensive first or second team.

Give it up for Luol Deng: one of the greatest European players in NBA history, and perhaps the best two-way European ever.


[1] The Kings’ first round pick that is involved is top-12 protected this year and top-10 protected in 2015 and 2016, after which it becomes a second rounder. So let’s go ahead and assume it’s a second rounder.

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