As he struggled excelling with a new role, a new system and teammates, Lakers forward Luol Deng understood the critical questions that it sparked.
In his 12th NBA season, why did Deng post career-lows in points (7.6) and shooting percentage (38.7) in his first year with the Lakers? In what has become one of the most criticized free-agency moves last summer, why did the Lakers sign Deng to a four-year, $72 million deal? In what will be one of the Lakers’ most pressing offseason questions, will they find a way to deal Deng’s contract or can he find a way to provide more value on his return?
Because of those issues, Deng sounded aware he faces an uncertain future. Deng basically received that message when he spoke with Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka at his exit meeting.
“They’re going to do what’s best for the team,” Deng said. “I respect that a lot. If I’m the GM, I would say the same thing to the players.”
But since Deng is a player and not a GM, he offered his own message about his role should he remain with the Lakers.
“In terms of my future,” Deng said, “I would like to play at the 4 more.”
Deng faced plenty of obstacles in what he called a “learning process” and a “rough season.” Lakers coach Luke Walton eventually started rookie forward Brandon Ingram permanently over Deng beginning on Feb. 6 in New York. Walton also sat Deng for the final 23 games, citing his hope to develop Ingram more with increased minutes. But Deng largely attributed his struggles toward playing at the small forward position instead of the power forward spot. He recalled feeling more comfortable playing at the latter position the previous two seasons in Miami where he showed more consistency in 2014-15 (14 points on 46.9 percent shooting, 5.2 rebounds) and in 2015-16 (12.3 points on 45.5 percent shooting, 6.0 rebounds).
“The style that we played, I had a hard time with it,” Deng said of Walton’s offense. “I’ve always kind of read the game and relied on my IQ. Not taking anything away from my skills or anything, but it’s very hard to adapt to a new system that fast.”
“The 3 is more of a spot-up position for a lot of teams. I think I struggle with that,” Deng said. “I have to find a way, and I think Luke agrees, to get back to moving and being involved in screens. I can always read screens, slip in or cut. That’s where I really perform best. I have a knack for rebounding. A lot of times at the 3, you have to get back to balance the floor.”
Publicly, Walton often stressed four things about Deng’s role with the Lakers. Walton downplayed Deng’s limited productivity. Walton highlighted Deng’s mentorship presence. Walton partly blamed Deng’s struggles on an offense featuring a young roster showing inconsistency with ball movement. Walton also said he shut Deng down for reasons that had nothing to do with his play, and everything to do with accelerating Ingram’s development.
Privately, Deng said he and Walton often talked about that role. Lately, Deng said Walton “agrees” with featuring him next season more at the “4” spot.
That possibility, though, opens up more questions. How would Deng fit in with a frontcourt that has mostly featured Julius Randle starting and Larry Nance Jr. as a reserve? Will the Lakers retain Thomas Robinson, who will become an unrestricted free agent in July? Will the Lakers keep Tarik Black, who has a non-guaranteed contract with the Lakers for next season worth $6.65 million?
“I believe there will be a lot of changes,” Deng said. “When changes happen, if I’m one of the changes that happen early, clearly I can’t see myself with any input on how I would fit in. But if I’m one of the late guys to be moved, I can always look at the team and have a discussion if we both agree we fit in better.”
Deng was not available to the media following his exit interview last week, citing the need to travel somewhere for reasons he wanted to keep private. But Deng said he has frequently talked with Johnson and Pelinka ever since Lakers governor Jeanie Buss made changes on Feb. 21 by firing longtime general manager Mitch Kupchak and her brother, Jim, who had been the Lakers’ vice president of player personnel.
“The communication so far with Rob and Magic have been amazing,” Deng said. “It’s really been nonstop communication. They are clear about what they want. That makes it so much easier.”
Johnson and Pelinka stressed to all the Lakers’ players about reducing their body fat percentage and improving their conditioning.
“Magic and Rob are very clear. They want me to come in, work very hard and improve as much as I can,” Deng said. “They trust the fact that I’ve been in this league for so long. And my reputation has always been that as a hard worker.”
This offseason, Deng pledges to do fulfill that quality and “focus on everything” pertaining to his game.
“I’m just looking forward to working hard. I got a lot of things to prove and that’s where I’m going. I’m excited about it,” Deng said. “A lot of people don’t know me. They don’t know how hard I work. I’m okay with that. It’s an opportunity for me to show people I always bounce back. It’s something my whole life has always been that way and has never been given handed to. I’ve always proven that I have to earn it. I’m looking forward to it.”
Deng spoke in a matter-of-fact tone about his struggles, his reduced role, his mentorship responsibilities and his uncertain future. He also stressed he feels “no bitterness” about this past season and called the Lakers a “great organization” and “top class.” Deng then praised the team’s young core (“great guys,” he said,) Walton and his coaching staff, the trainers, equipment managers and ball boys.
Deng said those things in case he may never wear a Lakers uniform again. Then again, maybe he will.
“We don’t really know what’s going on,” Deng said. “Everybody will get a better idea, including Luke and the front office. I think they know what they have. I don’t know exactly what we’re looking for. Obviously we want to win. But I think Luke trusts the front office and we trust the front office. We all in the locker room trust that they’ll try to make whatever the best decisions are for the team and organization. If that means some of us being gone, including myself, and that’s what they see is best for the team, you have to agree with it. That’s the position they’re put in. Their number one priority is to make the Lakers back to where they were.”
Meanwhile, Deng listed his No. 1 priority this offseason is to become the player he once was.
“I’ve never been a quitter,” Deng said. “I’ve never shied away from any challenge. Whatever challenge is put in front of me, I’ll try to do my best at it. There will be times it’s frustrating. But for me, I always believe hard work beats everything. No matter is going on around me, it’s about how good I can be with the circumstances.”