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Better all the time

Ever-improving Deng aspires to greatness with Bulls

Posted: Friday August 10, 2007 1:14PM; Updated: Friday August 10, 2007 1:20PM
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It wasn't long ago that Luol Deng (right) was on the receiving end of instruction from NBA players during clinics like this one in Paris.
It wasn't long ago that Luol Deng (right) was on the receiving end of instruction from NBA players during clinics like this one in Paris.

PARIS -- The campers were only five or six years younger than Luol Deng. They looked up to him like he was a transcendent being. He in turn looked them in the eyes as if he were still in their shoes.

Coming off a breakout 2006-07 season in which he averaged 18.8 points while leading the Chicago Bulls past the opening round for the first time since Michael Jordan's 1998 farewell, Deng spent the week here as a glorious example for the teenagers attending this NBA camp. But his status betrays Deng's humility: At 22, he feels much less in common with Jordan than with 6-foot-8 Sy Bandja and 7-foot Samake Negueba, two 17-year-old Frenchmen who were among the most intriguing players at Basketball Without Borders, the NBA global outreach program to which 50 of the top Europeans of high school age were invited.

"I don't know how to explain it, but I can't really see life other than trying to get better every day,'' says Deng, 22. "It really helps me being around kids who are trying to get better, because that's what I try to do. Every day is almost a struggle in terms of what I try to work on. It really helps being around them because I get that feeling again, that I just want to be better and also to try to motivate them and direct them.''

As quickly as he's progressed -- he's turned the corner more quickly and sharply than predicted after leaving Duke as a freshman in 2004 -- the 6-8 Deng knows that his finishing steps will be the most difficult of his career. It's one thing to become a good NBA player, and another to become the best. His accomplishments of last season now serve as a minimum standard for the decade to come.

"When you have a good season, it's really easy to relax,'' he says. "I already acknowledge the fact that this is going to go on for my whole career, every year, so it's just who I am. Next year is really a big challenge that I come back and do better and the team takes a step ahead. So far in my career, I haven't taken a step back or even stayed the same.''

As easily as he threw bounce passes to the younger players, so was he able to recall the anxiety and excitement he felt at their age. Deng was born in Sudan, where fellow Dinka tribesman Manute Bol gave him initial lessons in the sport. With his large family he escaped the civil war to live in London, where he grew up playing basketball obsessively.

"I heard people tell me since I was young that they [NBA players] are way too good, or, 'You're not going to get a chance to play over there.' ''

So he understands the importance of this camp. "The first thing is for us to be here, for them to see us,'' Deng says. "When I was growing up and I saw an NBA player, it meant a lot and I waited for that day. When they see us, we try to leave them with something positive, just to let them know to keep working hard. You don't have to be a genius, it's not like some people in the U.S. have a secret formula [to make it to the NBA]. Wherever you are, the basket is the same size. A lot of these kids really think they're too far [away from America]. So the main message is to keep working hard and you'll make it.''

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