At long last, Bulls announce signing of Deng to six-year deal

Derrick Rose was the No. 1 overall pick in last month's NBA draft, but Luol Deng still ranks as the Chicago Bulls' cornerstone player.

That status was slammed home Wednesday when Bulls general manager John Paxson told ESPN Radio 1000 in Chicago that Deng and the Bulls, after more than a year of slow-moving negotiations, completed a new contract that will keep the restricted free agent in Chicago.

The Bulls announced in a news release Thursday morning that the deal was signed, and a news conference was expected to be held later in the day.

"Signing Luol has always been a priority for this organization and we have always felt that he was a big part of our future. We are very happy that Luol will now be with us long term as we continue to grow as an organization," Paxson said in a statement.

With Deng committed to leaving for England by week's end to join Great Britain's national team -- and insisting to the Bulls that he would not negotiate with them further without a deal by Friday -- sources said earlier this week that the sides had verbally agreed on a new six-year pact worth a guaranteed $71 million.

Various media outlets are reporting that the deal could be worth as much as $80 million.

"Today is a great feeling," Deng told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "I've always said I am very lucky, very blessed to have had the right people around me. I've always tried to be positive through all the hard times, to try and be positive about what I've been given and to work hard and be smart.

"As for the money and how to celebrate, I don't know what to do. … I did manage a nice dinner and, I have to admit, the food tasted a little better than it has done for some time. The last few weeks, when I was eating my chicken and pasta, my mind was somewhere else. I wasn't getting the right taste."

Given his modest background growing up in the Sudan and Egypt before moving to London, Deng stressed to the Bulls that he was not bluffing when he vowed to play next season on a one-year qualifying offer worth about $4.5 million for the right to become an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2009.

The Bulls then gradually raised their offer to a higher annual average that Deng turned down in October, when Chicago was limited to offering him a five-year extension and presented the 6-foot-9 forward with a five-year package worth $57.5 million. As ESPN.com reported earlier this month,
Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf chose to personally handle the bulk of the negotiations with Deng's camp, as opposed to the standard practice of Paxson serving as lead negotiator.

Deng, 23, couldn't avoid being dragged down by the Bulls' nightmarish 2007-08 season, with Chicago never recovering from the contract extensions that he and teammate Ben Gordon failed to secure in October and smothering speculation about a trade for Kobe Bryant.

The Bulls ultimately netted a 33-49 record that cost coach Scott Skiles and interim replacement Jim Boylan their jobs, while Deng played in just 63 games and averaged 17.0 points and 6.3 rebounds, down slightly from the numbers in his breakout 2006-07 season (18.8 points, 7.1 rebounds and 51.7 percent shooting from the floor) when the Bulls went 49-33 and swept the defending champion Miami Heat in the first round of the playoffs.

But Deng is said to be excited by the Bulls' appointment of rookie coach Vinny Del Negro after Chicago's near agreements with coaching veterans Mike D'Antoni and Doug Collins. He can now head overseas at week's end with no concerns about the future, having achieved long-term security.

"I really do feel there is a good chemistry with the new coach," Deng told ESPN.com. "I got to watch Summer League a little bit, went to practices, saw the coach and the new staff. We have Derrick Rose and a lot of young guys coming back so I got to watch them practice. The way we are going to play next year has me really excited and I feel I'll fit into the system really well.

"The coach is talking about how he's going to use me and what he thinks of me as a player. I definitely feel as though the Bulls see me as a cornerstone of the team, but I am only going to show that by working hard. I have no problem with that because I know I'm going to do it."

Deng's focus will soon shift to trying to help his new national team qualify for the 2009 European Championships. The versatile forward received a British passport in October 2006 and is central to the restoration of Great Britain's basketball program under American coach Chris Finch. Deng also serves as an official ambassador for the 2012 Olympics to be held in London.

The immediate prospects for Gordon, by contrast, are much harder to gauge. ESPN.com reported earlier this month that there is some sentiment in the Bulls' organization to keep Kirk Hinrich -- a Reinsdorf favorite -- and play him at shooting guard alongside Rose and Deng while attempting to move Gordon via sign-and-trade. Sources said Tuesday that Gordon indeed has been shopped by the Bulls this month in various sign-and-trade scenarios.

Gordon, who also holds a British passport, this week publicly acknowledged that he would consider following the lead of Atlanta Hawks restricted free agent Josh Childress by accepting a lucrative offer overseas, although his preference is to stay with the Bulls.

"I would love to see Ben's contract sorted out," Deng told ESPN.com.

"He told me that he would play for Great Britain if his contract is done, depending how soon it is done. As a teammate and a friend, I would love to see him back here. He's been playing with me since I got into the NBA. I've not been on the court without him and we all know what he is capable of doing.

"Now I've got my deal done, I think the Bulls will focus more on Ben and, hopefully, they will come to an agreement."

Asked about Deng's vow to break off all talks with the Bulls if a deal wasn't completed in time for him to leave for Team GB, Gordon told the Chicago Sun-Times: "I don't blame him for making that move. At some point in time, you have to be the aggressor. It's kind of like we've been negotiating since last summer. I don't think there's any reason why it should be dragged out this long, and he feels the same."

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Information from ESPN.com contributor Ian Whittell, who covers basketball for The Times of London, was used in this report.