Luol Deng sat on the bench at the 02 Arena just six weeks ago, a cheerleader without the uniform, a spare part with only advice to contribute. Great Britain’s only genuine NBA star was part of the side but outside it. Dropping by to rally the team-mates who would carry the flag in his absence at the European Championships, he took the applause, signed autographs and offered his counsel. While everyone else was looking forward to Poland, Deng headed back to Chicago to watch on from afar.
The Bulls forward will return to his hometown this weekend and this time he is anticipating more than a cameo role. On Tuesday night, back in the Docklands, Deng will lead his NBA club in an exhibition against Utah and for those who pay his hefty salary, the excursion is about more than spreading goodwill and the gospel of David Stern.
They want to know if the old Deng is back, the one who was expected to become an All-Star when he agreed a new long-term contract last summer. The one who was a focal point of a play-off side before a fractured tibia, sustained on February 28, cut his campaign short – and eventually ruled him out of national duty.
The rehab has been arduous. The gym. The weights room. For the past month, practice at full-tilt. But – right now – even Deng doesn’t know where – or how – he stands.
"I could say whatever I want to say, but until I'm on the floor I really don't know," Deng declared. "I'm going to go by how it feels. I'm going to try to do my best to do two practices a day. I think I'll be able to. I feel great. But if I feel anything early, I will try to monitor it."
The Bulls staff are keeping a close watch. This may have become Derrick Rose’s team. However in the absence of the departed Ben Gordon, head coach Vinny Del Negro admits he needs a nightly contribution from the former Brixton Topcat.
"He's finally healthy,” said Del Negro at the Bulls media day. “He's had a couple of injury-plagued seasons. But he's confident. He feels great. He's had a very productive summer. His weight, his body fat, all those things, he's probably in as good a condition as he's been in, and he knows how important he is to us."
Deng will do what he can to play tour guide when the Bulls land in the UK for their brief pre-season tour. “Winning,” he insists, is all that matters this term.
"One thing I do is I work very hard," Deng said. "I really don't take shortcuts. I felt like the past two years I had unfortunate injuries. There's nothing I could do about that. But I really worked hard this summer."
The Bulls are about to find out if it’s payback time for all concerned.