After signing a four-year, $72 million contract with the Los Angeles Lakers last summer, veteran forward Luol Deng had the worst season of his 13-year NBA career, posting 7.6 points and 5.3 rebounds over 26.5 minutes in 56 games played.
To make things worse, he was a healthy scratch down the stretch and was shut down completely at the end of February so that head coach Luke Walton could experiment with different rotations featuring the team’s younger players.
Entering this season, however, it seemed as though some minutes might have been available for Deng. While Brandon Ingram was slated to start at small forward and Larry Nance and Julius Randle were expected to split the minutes at power forward, Deng was presumed to have some kind of minimal role.
But, rookie Kyle Kuzma broke onto the scene as a legitimate part of Los Angeles’ future, thus forcing Deng out of the rotation. Veteran Corey Brewer has also been deployed instead of him.
Deng logged just 13 minutes in his only game played out of 10 contests for the Lakers so far this season, posting two points and an assist.
And it appears as though he’s had enough.
"It definitely hurts," Deng told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne on Monday after practice. "But the only answer for me now is to prove myself away from LA. I'm not asked to play, I'm not in the rotation so I can't prove myself here.”
He made his feelings very clear. Although it pains him to do it, he’s looking for a way out of Los Angeles.
"You spend the whole summer like, trying to come back for the city, for the team, to prove that it was just one bad year. But the opportunity's not there," Deng said. "I know I make a lot of money, but for me -- I came from nothing so it's always been about the love of the game.”
He also made it clear that whatever team ends up acquiring him will gain a hard worker.
"I've always given it everything. Every single team that I've played for, every single person would tell you that I've given it everything every single day. That's the toughest part for me because I'm so used to competing and giving it everything. I'm also used to not doing great and turning it around. My whole life, every time I've been down, I've found a way to turn it around," he said.
Although it may seem like a positive situation to make $72 million as a locker room mentor to the team’s young players, it seems as though Deng wants to compete on the court, which is admirable.
Coach Walton still believes that Deng could have an impact on the Lakers this season, however. But, an unfortunate injury or two has to happen first.
Walton told Shelburne that his message to Deng has been, "We have a really young group that we're trying to grow together and get as much opportunity as possible. I know that that's not obviously the ideal situation for you or what you signed up for; I have compassion for that. What we need out of you is to be a really good vet, to be a leader in the locker room and be a mentor to these guys, because a lot of them look up to you. And for you to be ready. You never know how the NBA season goes. There's always injuries. There's always something that happens. Opportunities will be there."
It may be in the best interest of both Deng and the Lakers to part ways, but Los Angeles will likely struggle to find a trade partner who is willing to take on the remainder of Deng’s astronomical deal. Therefore, it is very possible that he stays put throughout the rebuilding process in an off-court leadership role.