Luol Deng’s official return to the NBA on Thursday won’t quite be viewed around the league with quite the same anticipation as that of Kevin Garnett on opening night. The Boston Celtics beating the Cleveland Cavaliers? Hype that up as a really early Eastern Finals forecast. The Bulls, Deng included, against San Antonio? Keep us posted.
However for Deng, playing a competitive game for the first time since February 28 means a lot. Months of recovery and rehab. Enduring the criticisms of the doubters who wondered why a stress fracture of the tibia was enough keep him on the sidelines. Plus, inevitably, proving to himself and his employers that he can be an elite player who merits every dollar of his $70 million contract.
No pressure then.
Two years ago, the Londoner played all 82 games, averaging 18.8 points, 7.1 rebounds – both career-highs. He led Britain in the Eurobasket finals. Life couldn’t be better. Then fate took a twist. Deng is having to prove himself all over again in an offense that has evolved during Vinny Del Negro’s second offseason and with the replacement of Ben Gordon with John Salmons in the Chicago line-up.
So what can Lu do? “I really have to use my versatility, focus on defence and rebounding," he said. "It's not going to be one of those things where I have to get 20 or 30 points every night. We have different options. The most important is going out there, chipping in and doing all parts of the game."
If he doesn’t, the criticism, the doubts and the analysis will continue. But that comes with being paid the big bucks. Lest we forget, it’s only a year since no-one questioned Deng’s primetime value. His best, quite probably, is still to come.
"I can't tell you how confident and excited I am for the season to start," he declared.
A long time coming, the return starts here.
Eastern Conference champions: Boston Celtics
Western Conference champions: LA Lakers
NBA Finals winners: LA Lakers
Regular season MVP: LeBron James
Rookie of the Year: James Harden
Coach Of The Year: Flip Saunders