As a rookie in 2011, Jimmy Butler quickly latched onto Luol Deng’s routine.
Deng was the Chicago Bulls’ veteran small forward, the player Butler would one day replace. At the time, though, neither man was thinking like that. Butler had simply heard Deng had a habit of shooting each evening, so each night he called Deng to ask when and then appeared at the gym to join him.
They’d shoot together and rebound for each other, sometimes for two or three hours until 11 p.m. It was a time for Deng to find peace and reconnect himself with why he loves this game. And it was a time that made a profound impact on Butler, the now two-time All Star.
“As young as I was back then, and looking back at it, I wouldn’t be in the position I am without Lu,” Butler said.
They’ll face each other Sunday night at Staples Center when the Lakers (7-6) host the Bulls.
Butler is coming off two All-Star seasons and entered Saturday averaging 27.2 points per game in the Bulls’ previous six games. Deng is working through some early struggles with a Lakers organization that signed him to a four year, $72-million deal this summer. They’re counting on both his play, and his mentoring ability — the kind Butler saw first-hand.
“He’s a perfect fit for that,” Butler said. “Only because he was young a long time ago, but he knows what it takes to win. He knows what it takes to be successful in this league. He’s willing to show them the ropes.”
Deng’s adjustment to the Lakers has taken some time. But that’s something he’s experienced before under new coaches. Each time the Bulls changed head coaches, Deng’s shooting percentage dipped in the first 20 games under the new coach then improved the rest of the season. It happened again in Miami, where he played from 2014 to 2016.
This year, in his first 13 games with the Lakers, Deng has shot 32.3%, averaging 6.7 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. They are uncharacteristic numbers for Deng. In his career, he’s never shot worse than 41.2% in a full season, and has never averaged fewer than 11 points per game.
The Lakers style of play requires adaptation for Deng.
“I think you guys will start to see I’m really changing my game,” Deng said. “I’m trying to shoot more threes. I’m trying to depend on my shot more. In the past I was slashing. I’m trying to get used to the team and the lineups that I’m with. … I’m really trying to pick up my pieces.
“I think as the season goes on I will get better. I never really had a challenge that I didn’t overcome.”
Added Deng: “I really don’t like to fail.”
Throughout his career, any time he’s struggled, those evening workouts he tacked on to his day reminded him why he loves basketball. He loves the game, not the perks that come with it. Deng said the sessions have often served as a kind of therapy.
“Just shooting is really the highlight of my day,” Deng said.
It was like that when Butler began joining him five years ago. He and Deng developed a friendship. As Deng recalls, Butler’s work ethic was part of their bond, but beyond that they just liked each other.
“He’s always had a chip on his shoulder,” Deng said. “… In order to be successful, you kinda gotta be a good guy but at the same time you gotta have that fire inside you. And since his rookie year, even at practice, I always knew he had that fire inside.”
As much as Deng looks forward to reconnecting with Butler, the feeling is mutual.
“I love that guy,” Butler said. “He’s taught me so much. … He’s always talking to me, telling me how far I’ve come, not to change, keep being me. But I just continue to work. I take the foundation that he set for me in teaching me how to work and I do that now. I do that every day now.”