Luol Deng had a pretty good idea he would be named to his first All-Star Game. The Bulls forward was coy when asked how he knew, but he admitted he knew.
"I had a feeling" Deng said. "I don't know why. I was still surprised to see that [I] made it. This year kind of felt different going into it. There have been a few years where I thought I might make it. This year, for some reason, I thought it was going to happen."
Coach Tom Thibodeau wasn't surprised, either.
"I thought it would happen," the Bulls coach said. "The one thing about Lu, if you really look at his career each year he has been in the league he has gotten better and better. That's a sign of how serious he is, how he approaches the game. He's obviously a very well-rounded player. There isn't anything he doesn't do well. Obviously, he's very significant for us in terms of us winning."
Deng is the Bulls second best player but is often overlooked because he does so many things well that no one thing stands out. Here's what I've learned covering the team this season: He's a guy you have to watch every night to truly appreciate how multifaceted his game really is and how much he contributes to the team.
"Coaches appreciate what I do and how I play," he said. "It just feels like in the past years maybe someone was having a better year and maybe I got left out. But I've always gotten a lot of compliments [from] coaches around the league who appreciate the way I play. To me, my coaches, my teammates and people who know the game, they see it. I'm not so much caught up in people who do not know the game who just want to see the flashiness."
Deng said Thibodeau and his coaching staff, along with Derrick Rose, has made it easier for him to excel. Staying healthy has been a plus, as well. Although he did tear a ligament in his left wrist earlier this season, causing him to miss several games, he has avoided the type of injuries that resulted in him missing extended periods earlier in his career.
He said sitting out the Bulls memorable first-rounds playoff series against the Celtics during the 2008-09 season was the most difficult time in his career.
"When I had the stress fracture and had to watch one of the best series --- Boston against us --- that I've never seen," Deng said when asked to describe his lowest point as a Bull. "Knowing that I'm on that team but I can't dress up and play and then sitting there and reading everything, the papers, the fans, saying I really wasn't hurt. To me, that was the lowest point and the craziest thing I ever had to go through. That's the first time I went through something like that. It helped me a lot in bouncing back and knowing how things worked. Before I felt I was loved by everyone. That's really the way I felt. Through my whole life I never experienced if you want to call it hate or whatever it was. Until that point, and sitting there for seven games, to me, was the toughest thing I've done my entire career. "
Thibodeau may be Deng's biggest fan. He may also end up coaching Deng in the All-Star game. Coaches of the team with the best record in each conference through games played through Feb. 15 will be named All-Star coaches. At 22-6, the Bulls currently own the best record in the Eastern Conference.
"For us he's invaluable," Thibodeau said. "There are so many intangibles he brings to our team --- unselfishness, hard work, caring about nothing but winning and how he can help. He's a great teammate, very coachable and there's nothing he doesn't do well. He plays great defense, he moves without the ball, he shares the ball, he can hit threes, he can put it on the floor, he slashes, he can post. It's his leadership, the way he approaches things every day, the example he sets, you can't say enough about him."