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Luol Deng eager to help young players, worry less about his role

Lakers forward Luol Deng started 49 games last season, posting a career-low average of 7.6 points per game.

When Lakers coach Luke Walton sees Luol Deng interact with the team’s young players, he sees a change from last season.

He seems to be more vocal and engaged. That is by design.

“This year I’m just working on my game, be the best I can be, but also be a mentor, just be there for these young guys,” Deng said. “No matter what my role is or what I’m able to do, it doesn’t take away what I can apply to these young guys and what I can pass forward. I love seeing them do well and succeed.”

Deng was part of an expensive free-agency haul for the Lakers in the summer of 2016 that wound up being a bad fit for the signees and the team. The other big-ticket acquisition, Timofey Mozgov, was traded to the Brooklyn Nets this summer, freeing up an average of $16 million in salary cap space each year for the next three years. With Mozgov gone, conversation turned to whether the Lakers would be able to move Deng, who signed a four-year deal worth $72 million in 2016.

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All the talk impacts Deng’s career, but it isn’t something he spends too much time thinking about. Worrying about his role and his future was last year’s distraction.

“I understand it better than I did last year,” Deng said. “I know how last year went. To me everything was really a big surprise in terms of the losing and playing the young guys instead of the older guys. That was a lot of experience. I think this year the message is clearer right now. They’re trying to win. … I think last year with the losing and everything, I was asking too many questions instead of really just working on my game and focusing on what I could do myself.

“If the organization is moving in a different direction, that’s OK. For me, this is a great organization. It’s always about what the organization wants to do. As a player all you can do is play hard, be in the best shape you can and answer by your game.”

Deng began last season as the Lakers’ starting small forward, with Mozgov at center. By the first week of February, Brandon Ingram had replaced Deng in the starting lineup. Ivica Zubac replaced Mozgov on the same day.

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By the last week of February, both Deng and Mozgov had been shut down for the season. The Lakers turned their attention to developing their young players and occasionally doing what they could to improve their lottery odds. They also felt they didn’t get the kind of mentorship they had hoped for from Deng. When the season ended, they asked Deng to come back in great shape, just as they asked many other players.

Then in June, Mozgov was dealt to the Nets. Deng was pleased for the big man, who knew just what he’d gone through last season. The trade sent Mozgov from a place where he didn’t play for the last two months of the season, to a team for which he is expected to start.

“I really think he’s a good player,” Deng said. “I think a lot of frustration from last year, a lot of it was taken out on me and him. I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that we got paid and people expected a lot more. … I’m just happy for him that he got in a situation that I think will be better for him.”

Deng worked to get in the shape his team asked for this offseason, with an interruption when he had surgery to repair a pectoral muscle tear that occurred while he was working out. Well before training camp, he was healed and ready to return.

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“We told him coming into this season we’re starting fresh, we’ll see playing the four, playing the three, all those things are options for him,” Walton said. “Unfortunately, though, he hurt his pec muscle early in the summer, but he’s looked good so far in camp. His defense has been impressive. He’s a smart guy. He knows where to be all the time. He’s another guy that’s been doing a great job of mentoring [Kyle Kuzma] and the rookies go to him and ask questions so we’ve been happy with him.”

Ingram is the Lakers’ starting small forward of the present and future, but he is only 20. Kuzma, whom the Lakers took with a first-round pick acquired in the trade that sent Mozgov to Brooklyn, is 22.

Deng is 32, with experience that could help both.

“He’s been more vocal this year,” Walton said. “I don’t know if it’s from a different mind-space. He was brand new last year so a lot of times I think it’s tough for a new guy to come in and start telling other people what to do. He’s been here for a year now. He’s got a relationship with the players. He seems more comfortable.”

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tania.ganguli@latimes.com

Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli


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