When the Los Angeles Lakers signed Luol Deng to a four-year contract worth $72 million in free agency last summer, the hope was that he could solidify the team’s wing rotation with solid defense and 3-point shooting, all while providing a professional presence in the locker room.
Deng did the latter for the Lakers, providing sage advice for his young teammates and an example of how to be a professional, but his averages of 7.6 points and 5.3 rebounds while shooting 38.7 percent from the field and 30.9 percent from 3-point range hardly scream “max contract player.”
The 12-year veteran was excused from his exit interview with the Lakers last week, but in an interview with Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times from right before the season ended, Deng made it clear he wasn’t thrilled with the way his season went, and that he is more than aware of the criticisms of the contract the Lakers signed him to.
“There’s a bitter taste in my mouth,” Deng said. “I just gotta come back with a chip on my shoulder. This year started to build a fire inside me. I don’t tell people a lot of times because I carry on not being as competitive, but I’ve got a lot of people to shut up next year.”
“I feel like I worked very hard coming into this season and continued to work hard,” Deng said. “It was just one of those, just the way the team was made up and having to learn so much, I had a hard time trying to be consistent in the system.”
Deng just turned 32-years old, and with 30,536 minutes on his odometer (many playing in Tom Thibodeau’s insanely active defensive system with the Chicago Bulls, which ages players in dog years) it seems unlikely he’s due for a hug bounce-back season.
However, there are some signs that Deng may not be as bad as he looked. The Lakers were actually 1.2 points per 100 possessions better with Deng on the floor, and the difference was more stark defensively, where he improved the Lakers’ efforts by 3.5 points per 100 possessions.
Some of that improvement is just Deng primarily being replaced by Brandon Ingram, who despite all the promise he showed was still a net-negative player for the majority of his debut campaign.
While Deng will in all likelihood never fully live up to the expectations most fans have for a player on a deal of his size and length, with another year in Lakers Head Coach Luke Walton’s system under his belt and a determination to prove his critics wrong, he might just be able to positively impact the Lakers next season