Thibodeau Player Development: Luol Deng
Luol Deng was 25 years old when Thibodeau took over the Bulls and was mostly a finished product at that point in his career. He was coming off a season where he averaged 17.6 points and 7.3 rebounds alongside terrific perimeter defense. Everyone around the league regarded him as a solid two-way player, and Kobe Bryant denied being traded to the Bulls if Luol Deng was involved in the trade back in 2007.
Luol Deng did not statistically make a massive leap under Tom Thibodeau, but he started contributing to a winning effort, earning him two all-star nods during the 2011-12 and 2012-13 NBA seasons.
Deng spoke about the biggest highlight of his career and gave props to Thibodeau for elevating his status among NBA circles, per KC Johnson of NBCS Chicago:
"“1st year making All-Star. It means a lot when you look back. When Thibs came to Chicago, it changed my career. As well as I had done in the past, I think it gave me almost like a label where people started believing in how hard I played.”"
He became Tom Thibodeau’s go-to perimeter defender. In fact, Thibodeau spoke about Deng in an interview with Michael Kay recently, where he addressed his minutes distribution.
His justification behind those minutes was the minutes the opposing player played. Thibodeau mostly matched Deng up against the opposing team’s best player and played him synchronously with the man he was matched up against. Deng usually had the arduous task of guarding Lebron James, and he embraced being one of the league’s feistiest defenders.
Deng was selected to the NBA’s All-Defensive team in 2012. The player that was labeled a “rising star” for years finally took a step towards stardom under Thibodeau, earning deserved recognition as an elite two-way player.
Deng was the second option on two Bulls squads who finished with the league’s best record, and he led the team in scoring during the 2012-13 season, where the Bulls managed to secure the 5th seed in the East and beat the Brooklyn Nets in the playoffs without Derrick Rose.
However, the Bulls would trade Luol Deng after 23 games in 2013, enraging Thibodeau.
Deng opened up about the trade and Thibodeau’s fierce loyalty to him, per NBC Chicago:
"“Thibs was upset, and Thibs kept telling them (the front office), ‘Sign Lu, I need you to sign Lu,'” Deng told Tshabalala. “So when the [2013-14 season] started, I wasn’t signed for the Bulls, and Thibs decided he was going to make them know how important I am for the team and ran everything through me — and this is why I love Thibs still today… I was averaging 20 (points per game) at the time when I got traded. When the front office saw that I was averaging 20, obviously now, everybody wanted to pay me more money. So they decided that it was better to trade me before they lose me for nothing."
Deng’s career took a downhill turn without Thibodeau, but it is encouraging and classy that he gave Thibodeau credit for helping him take the next step in his career. Without Thibs, it’s unlikely that Deng earns two all-star nods and an all-defensive honor.
This is encouraging for a player like Frank Ntilikina as Thibodeau has a fierce loyalty and respect for players who play hard-nosed defense. Deng averaged 38.65 minutes per game in his four seasons under Thibodeau in Chicago, and Ntilikina, who has not seen any stability in minutes, could see a considerable rise in his activity under Thibs.