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NBA / Mar 31, 2011 / 5:00 pm

Pass The Mic: Luol Deng Wins The Most Underrated Player Award

Luol Deng

Luol Deng (photo. Keith Allison)

Words. Eric Bressman

There are no awards to honor his body of work, but perhaps that is precisely the point. We can dub him the MUP (Most Underrated Player), but it’s a title that’s impossible to assess objectively, and ultimately we’ll find ourselves in something of a Catch-22. What is certain is that without Luol Deng, the Chicago Bulls, not only as a team but as a franchise, would not be where they are today.

Deng’s rookie season (2004-05) marked the turning point in the post-Jordan era, and the team has only missed the playoffs once since. He is the only remaining player from that roster, or from the ’05-’06 and ’06-’07 rosters, for that matter. He has seen personnel changes and roster gutting, tie grabbing and even some chest poking, and maintained steadily consistent production throughout.

But as Deng wraps up his most impressive regular season to date, it hardly registers with even the trained eye. Note his numbers over the past five years. Apart from an injury plagued 2008-09 campaign, his point totals are par for the course. His minutes are up (currently fourth in the league), and his shooting percentages have dipped slightly. But before you jump to analysis, note this: In the past four seasons, Deng attempted a total of 132 threes (he shot precisely seven in all of ’06-’07, the only season he didn’t miss a game); with nine games to play this season, he’s put up 301, converting at a rate of 34.2 percent. Coach Tom Thibodeau asked Deng to remake his game, and he has responded in kind. Triples comprised 6.1 percent of Deng’s field goal attempts over the course of his career; this season they constitute 29 percent.

Deng has had to become the team’s consistent floor stretcher with the two-spot as the one glaring weakness in the rotation. Kyle Korver was brought in to provide some of that depth, but with his eye-popping lateral quickness, he’s primarily readying himself for what is sure to be a stellar career in the rec center seniors league. Deng’s expanding out from an already efficient midrange game has kept defenses honest and opened up the floor for Derrick Rose to do so much of the romping and snarling that have defined his MVP campaign.

His PER is hovering around average (15.72) and rather low for his career, mostly because his minutes are up and his percentages are down, but the statistic doesn’t reflect the very reason his presence on the court is indispensable to the Bulls’ success. The oft-repeated mantra that has permeated the Chicago’ locker room and fueled their defensive renaissance is accountability, and no one has been made more accountable than Deng. He regularly sticks the opponent’s top scorer, and for those who haven’t been paying attention, the Bulls’ defense has improved quite a bit (allowing 91.1 ppg, down from 99.1 last year). Much of that has to do with rebounding and a steady inside presence, but Deng has taken the toughest assignments night in and night out, and used his length and athleticism to become the stopper upfront Thibodeau’s system demands.

And, of course, he’s done it all amidst an almost predictable cycle of trade rumors, resurfacing every deadline and offseason. Never the face of the franchise but always the backbone, his trophy case – lined with sportsmanship and humanitarian awards – is a testament to his character. Maybe he’s content with that and maybe he’s not, but if there’s anything more in his arsenal just awaiting word for deployment, Deng may soon be making room on those shelves for the hardware that renders all other recognition meaningless.

Who do you think is the most underrated in the NBA?

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  • NTstateOFmind

    decent article; Deng thrives as a role player. before Rose bloomed, Deng caught a lot of bad press ever since he signed that fat contract …but now that hes in the shadows he can stay focused and do what he does

    the contract wasn’t the smartest, but at the end of the day its better than if the bulls had signed Ben Gordon instead

  • http://bigleaguewiffleball.com/ Jon L.

    Deng is a solid player and great scoring option for the Bulls. He certainly isn’t a star, but he is a good third option on that very good Bulls team, who can score. With Rose passing him the ball, he is a very productive player.

  • LMNOP

    I’ve always though that deng is one of the smartest players in te L. He’s alot like Pau Gasol (aside from their game and appearance being entirely different) they both play very intelligently and bring alot of intangebles that help a team win.
    He’ll never be a star player, he has the skills, but i dont think its in his mentallity, and that is exactly what makes him so good when paired with a guy like Rose.

  • Bullz4Lyfe

    I never really thought about how crucial Deng is to the Bulls’ success as a franchise. Kudos on your words Eric Bressman, you have proven to be a perceptive fan of the game and are certainly on the vanguard of basketball’s critical pedagogical scholars.

    @NTstateOFmind: I agree, that contact was pretty whack.

  • ctkennedy

    the most underrated r zach randolph,josh smith,and andre miller …people always talk about what they cant do …n never what they can

  • http://www.wtf.com Chicagorilla

    I dont want to ish all over a well written article so i’ll try to contain myself.

    Deng is an avg player. He has managed to not be a bust which is cool with me since i’m a Bulls fan. But hyping him as a defensive stopper…..a defensive stopper????, or even as underrated is crazy to me. The guy is the biggest assist jagger in the NBA! His constant pump fakes while being wide open is the most infuriating thing to watch as a bulls fan.

    Now I will give Deng plenty of credit for his hustle, his consistancy, his willingness to play team ball, and being prepared for each game. He can’t keep anyone in front of him to save his life because of his lack of anticipation and foot speed, but the dude hustles.

    If the writer wants to give due credit to a Bulls player that isn’t getting the recognition, then give props to Kurt Thomas or Tom Thibideau. Kurt has shown he is one of the best defensive players in the game today and probably plays the best on ball post D in the NBA. Thibs (to my suprise) has been great at in game adjustments, having the team prepared for each game, and of course his defensive system. about the only thing Thibs does wrong is his personel decisions (playing Deng waaaaayyy too many minutes, not playing Brewer enough, having Scalabrini on the team, starting Keith Bogans).

  • flegman

    underrated? no way.
    gets 12-14 mill till 2013/14. for average output. he is very important for the bulls, when he plays well, the bulls play well.

    that is not underrated. more like underachieving.

  • Brooklyn Bulls

    Deng is an average player? Seriously? Admittedly, I would have agreed with that in the past. But Deng, along with Thibs’ vision, has expanded from a good mid-range shooter with some defensive skills into an all around all-star caliber player. Great individual and team defensive player, slasher, 3 point shooter, and the 2nd most reliable player on this team behind Rose. Average players are not the glue on their team and are willing AND capable of doing everything asked of them. Arent u the same guy who stated the Bulls were overrated b/c they were predicted to land the 4th seed in the east?? and Charlotte, Milwaukee and Atlanta would be stomping them right now??

  • Brooklyn Bulls

    And yes that was intended for u Chicagorilla

  • Bballeducator

    I am a die hard bulls fan and have been hoping, praying the bulls just bull the trigger on a deng trade,(kobe, Pau, KG) I couldnt stand his pump fakes, his fake jab steps, but after this year I’m glad we didnt. He fits the role he is asked to fill perfectly, a constant jumper, a good defender and now a three ball.
    And sure the contract at first was completely over priced but if you look at what he does and comapare it to other players contracts it really isnt that over priced anymore.
    The bulls cant afford to have Deng off the court long (just look at the minutes he has put in), even when Rose is out usually they have Deng in the game holding it together, Deng is the glue to the 1st place Bulls team, so yeah he might be underrated.

  • JAY

    @flegman: “underrated? no way.
    gets 12-14 mill till 2013/14. for average output. he is very important for the bulls, when he plays well, the bulls play well.
    that is not underrated. more like underachieving.”

    I disagree… I think you may be confusing “underrated” with “overpaid”. Nobody talks about Deng, so in effect, he isn’t “rated” highly. Therefore, he’s underrated.
    Does he makes more than he’s worth? Sure… but that isn’t his fault.
    And what do you mean by “underachieving”?? By who’s standards? Did you expect him to be a perennial all-star? Or are you judging his play by his salary? You can’t fault the guy for accepting the money he was offered. Everyone thought the Bulls paid too much for Deng, that doesn’t make him underachieving. It just means the Bulls paid too much. He’s achieving exactly what most of us thought he would/could do.

    Calling him an underachiever is like saying Raphael Araujo underachieved because he was the 8th pick. That’s BS. The Raptors just drafted him too high.

    Conversely, MJ was paid 3 mill per year during his first 3-peat. Does that mean he was an overachiever?? or was he underpaid?? Salary means nothing. That’s the business side. We’re talking strictly BASKETBALL. Deng is not an underacheiver.

  • Shah

    Luol “Pippen” Deng

  • Jade

    “Eye-popping lateral quickness, he’s primarily readying himself for what is sure to be a stellar career in the rec center seniors league”

    Thats SO harsh dude….true….but HARSHHHH !!!!

  • iCARNACKi

    Good player yes, underrated no.

    You want to talk about underrated then the list starts with Lamarcus Aldridge.

  • LFP

    Britain’s greatest ever basketball player. Proud to have just got his jersey.