LOS ANGELES – After the first few days of Timberwolves’ practice, Luol Deng said he was using the preseason to readjust to coach Tom Thibodeau’s style after being away from Thibodeau since 2014.
“I’ve just got to keep going, getting used to Thibs’ system again and how he likes to play,” Deng said.
Deng made the statement without a trace of comedy. When told of Deng’s words at a recent practice, Thibodeau, however, began to laugh.
“That’s just a veteran comment,” said Thibodeau, amused that Deng would think he needed a crash course in re-learning how to play for him.
Then Thibodeau turned his thoughts to how Deng played in Saturday’s preseason win over the Warriors when he came in late in the fourth quarter after not playing at all, and contributed six points and four rebounds in just over five minutes. To Thibodeau, it was a distillation of why he brought Deng into the Wolves’ locker room — a mentality that will rub off on everyone.
“That’s important for everyone to see,” Thibodeau said. “We want him to continue to build that way. All the little things he brings to your team – his attitude, his approach, how he practices, how he takes care of himself. Those things are important and go a long way.”
At 33, Deng is an accomplished veteran but still has a lot to prove. He played in just one game for the Lakers last season as he did not fit the philosophical direction the Lakers were moving under president Magic Johnson, whose predecessor Mitch Kupchak signed Deng, and coach Luke Walton.
“Last year I was told from the start of the season that I wasn’t going to play, so it’s a different fire when you’ve already been told that no matter what you do, you don’t have an opportunity,” Deng said. “Here, it’s just stay ready and keep working.”
His prolonged lack of playing time created a perception around the league that Deng might not have much left in the tank, a notion he is out to dispel this season. Deng played in 56 games in 2016-17 with the Lakers, averaging 7.6 points over 26.5 minutes per game. In two years in Miami from 2014-16, he averaged 33 minutes per game.
“Everyone has the right to say whether I’ve lost a step or not. They haven’t seen me play,” Deng said.
“I don’t feel that I was in the right position to play the best that I could be or be myself, so it was very easy to say that I lost a step or I’m not ready for it. And that’s fine. … Most of the time I like for my game to speak for itself, but I felt like I didn’t get the opportunity to do so.”
Regardless of how much Deng is able to add on the court, Thibodeau sees a lot of value in having Deng around the locker room. Deng said the drama involving Jimmy Butler’s trade request could actually bring the Wolves closer as a team. From what he saw from afar, the Wolves aren’t far off from making another step forward, even if Butler is gone.
“You could see the potential,” Deng said. “Going back and just studying the team last year, there’s a lot of games that we were in that we could have won. Sometimes that just takes a bit of leadership, of coming together and just realizing the importance of each game.”
It’s unclear exactly what role Deng will have in each game, whether he is a regular part of the rotation or just someone who spots a few minutes every now and then. But however big or small the opportunity, Deng is glad to have it with Thibodeau.
“Whenever that comes, I’ll be ready,” Deng said.