Bulls' Deng relishes his Olympic experience

LONDON -- When Chicago Bulls forward Luol Deng, fresh off a stint in the London Olympics, reports to training in October, he’ll walk into a locker room that has undergone significant changes.

The Bulls, of course, will have to cope without Derrick Rose for much of the forthcoming season as he recovers from knee surgery. Moreover, Kyle Korver, C.J. Watson and Omer Asik have been allowed to leave, with the returning Kirk Hinrich, Nazr Mohammed, Marco Belinelli and Vladimir Radmanovic all moving in the opposite direction. It is a state of affairs that has clearly been noted, with a raised eyebrow, from this side of the Pond.

"It's definitely going to be tough being without him," said Deng of Rose's loss. "He is a big part of everything we do, he is such a huge player to miss that much time but he has got to take his time and come back the best he can be.

"We've lost some guys I really wish had stayed, who I'm friends with and close with. But it's my ninth year and the roster has been different every year. I've seen a lot of good players and a lot of good friends come and go and every year whoever we've got in that locker room, you've got to get together and try and win together."

However, Deng is at pains to point out that his relationship with the Bulls, and head coach Tom Thibodeau, has not suffered in the slightest. His effusive praise of the organization for its support comes despite what was perceived as an acrimonious process at the end of last season, when the club reportedly attempted to talk him into missing the Olympics and undergoing surgery, which Deng insisted he did not need.

With Britain granted a place as host nation, and playing in an Olympic basketball tournament for only the second time, Deng was adamant that nothing would prevent him appearing in London, representing the nation that granted his family political asylum. But, he claims, there has been no residual ill feeling from the process.

"I don't know how it became bigger than it is. It's not a problem," said Deng. "It was just a question of whether I should get surgery or should I not. At the end of the day it was my decision. To become bigger than it was, I wish it hadn't happened like that but it is what it is.

"They understand. I talk to Thibs every day, spoke with him every game. He's seen every game, the guy loves basketball and he wants to talk about every possession! I have a good relationship with Thibs and the whole Bulls organization.

"I told them how bad I wanted to be here and how much I wanted to do it. I would never do anything to hurt the team or hurt myself. I felt like it was the right decision and I still believe so."

British basketball fans would certainly agree with that assessment. Deng helped the hosts play Spain, ranked second in the world, to within a point and Brazil, a team tipped as potential medalist by many, to within six. Only a blow-out loss against Australia, throwing away a 15-point third quarter lead in the process, prevented GB advancing to the quarterfinals where it would be meeting the Americans on Wednesday.

Deng led the team in points (15.8 per a game), assists (4.6) and steals (1.4), while ranking tied for first in rebounds (6.6) with Portland Trailblazers forward Joel Freeland. However, with defenses keying on Deng, he shot just 31.4 percent from the field for the tournament, 20 percent from the shorter international 3-point range. GB coach Chris Finch, an assistant with the Houston Rockets, spoke sympathetically of the constant double, and sometimes triple, teams that Deng attracted while speaking out about the lack of protection he received from referees.

Despite the punishing, physical nature of the tournament he went through, Deng insisted that the experience will be of benefit to him back in the more familiar surroundings of the NBA.

"I try to tell people, I can't be in a gym at home doing this, there is no way," said Deng. "When I'm out there I'm playing, I'm trying to win, but I'm also at the same time working on my game, seeing how I can get better.

"In a strange way it makes the NBA easier for me. People talk about this is Europe and it's a level down from the NBA and definitely, overall, it is. But the way I'm being played is definitely different. I know it, I feel it. It helps me a lot, helps my game a lot."

Away from basketball, the Olympic experience also lived up to everything Deng expected and wished for. One of the more amusing personal Twitter pictures from Great Britain players during the Games showed Deng, former NBA forward Pops Mensah-Bonsu and ex-Arizona State center Eric Boateng posing for a photograph with the 5-foot-9 British track gold medalist Mo Farah.

"Just playing in my hometown, playing with guys I grew up with, just competing with the best teams in the world, that's what I will remember most," said Deng. "I think being in the village with all those athletes, getting to know them, also. There are a lot of athletes I'm now friends with, who I'm going to be in touch with for a long time. It's one of those things that wouldn't happen if you weren't here, so I’m just glad I'm here."