Not least among the reasons why is health. Sometimes as NBA fans we gloss over health problems of players as something that comes with the job. We diminish what they experience by citing how we go to work sick all the time.
Last week, while writing an article, I went to go make a snack in the kitchen. In the ensuing cleanup, unaware to the danger skulking on the sponge, I was bitten, hard, by a mean and nasty Texan sugar ant, right on the tip of my right index finger.
I dug through the pain though. I played hurt. I finished that article, even though every time I had to type a “Y” or an “H” I was viciously reminded of the memento my little friend had left for me. I did it for my readers and my fans. That’s just the way I roll.
What’s playing basketball for two months with a broken thumb, or 1.5 years with a torn ligament in your wrist compared to a sugar-ant bite!?
If I can do it, so can Deng.
When Deng got “sick” (I guess that’s what we’re calling life-threatening illnesses nowadays) last postseason he was accosted by fans on twitter, and in defending himself, he let them know that he’d played through a fractured thumb for a part of the season.
Have you thought about what that must be like, playing with a broken thumb? How many times must he have banged it, jarred it, hit it wrong or put pressure on it while shooting? My guess is a lot. And that’s just one aspect of the pain he was experiencing, and doing so without so much as a gripe.
While he didn’t exactly specify when it happened, it’s worth noting that over the period between January 18 and March 23, he shot .392 from the field and .253 from deep. Over the rest of the season, he shot .444 overall and .354 from three.
I’m guessing his thumb injury was nestled in that little valley.
Starting on March 24, Deng’s numbers started to spike a little bit. He shot only .438 overall, but he was .379 from deep. His effective field goal percentage was .500 for the rest of the season, compared to a miserable .418 the previous two months.
Part of what happened to make that a fateful day in the life of Deng is that there were indications that his thumb (provided my guess on when he was injured is correct) had already started to heal. He’d just made seven of 14 attempts against the Pacers the game before.
But something else happened too. Jimmy Butler was inserted into the starting lineup as the shooting guard, and that made a difference. Suddenly, Deng was not the only two-way-wing threat the Bulls had. With Butler shooting the lights out, knocking down threes at a .529 clip as the starting 2, Deng wasn’t commanding as much defensive attention.
Things still weren’t great though. The thumb may have been healed, but the ligament in his wrist was not.
That should rectify itself over the summer, now that he has sufficient time to heal. That’s time he didn’t have last year, because of his playing in the Olympics for his home country, Great Britain.
The last two seasons he’s played almost as many minutes as Methuselah lived. By the end of the season he was worn down and tired, and the ramifications were evident in the postseason.
Enter Mike Dunleavy, Chicago’s key free-agent acquisition from the summer. Dunleavy will play a massive role for the Bulls this year, just by playing at all.
Gone are those days of playing 40 minutes a night. Hello 35 minutes a night! Dunleavy has a solid, all-around game, is a veteran presence who plays good team defense and has a high basketball IQ. He’s the type of player that Bulls’ head coach, Tom Thibodeau, hasn’t had the luxury of yet—the type he can trust to navigate the team while Deng sits.
In the five seasons prior to Thibodeau’s arrival, and the corresponding boon in minutes, Deng played 35.4 minutes and shot .474 from the field. If he can see his minutes go down, a less fatigued Deng should shoot better.
Finally, Derrick Rose, as you may have heard, is back, and Deng is a better player when he’s on the court with Rose. Based on data form NBA.com/STATS, over the two-year span of the 2011 and 2012 seasons, Deng shot .454 overall, .370 from deep and had an effective field-goal percentage of .510 while on the court with Rose.
When Rose was sitting, Deng shot .414, .317 and .454 respectively. His actual field goal-percentage with Rose was the same as his effective field-goal percentage without Rose. Deng is definitely better Rose is dishing him the ball.
Let’s run this down then. When Deng is not mangled, he’s better. When Deng plays with Butler, he’s better. When Deng is not playing marathon minutes, he’s better. Finally, when he’s playing with Derrick Rose, he’s better.
That checklist is filled out for next season. All of those things will be true, which by every principle of sound logic suggests that Deng is in for a monster year, provided he can stay healthy.
His overall numbers shouldn’t change that much, around 17 points, three assists and six rebounds per game. But his minutes will be down, and his efficiency will be up. Look for him to shoot .470 from the field, and .370 from deep.
There will be those who point to his contract year, but that won’t be the reason for his big season. It will be because he’s finally right, and he finally has the right situation.