INDEPENDENCE — Luol Deng had to make a first impression for just the second time in his 10-year NBA career, but he certainly won the press conference Wednesday at Cleveland Clinic Courts.
A day after being traded from Chicago to the Cavaliers, the extremely polite, professional and well-spoken Deng regaled the media with a number of stories just minutes after going through his first practice with his new team.
At times funny, at times thoughtful and insightful, his answers were so good another factor got temporarily pushed to the background: The 6-foot-9, 220-pounder can play, too.
“I’ve been very lucky,” the South Sudan native said. “Not a lot of guys can say they’ve been with one organization so long, such a great organization. I was definitely surprised (by the trade). You hear stuff. You hear rumors. Some of it’s true, some of it’s not.
“When it happened, I couldn’t believe it. It took awhile to hit me. But it’s not like I’m stopped from playing basketball. I’ve been traded from one great organization to another. That (Chicago) book is closed. I’m really looking forward to starting anew and getting going.
“Everything is set up for winning (in Cleveland),” he added. “It excites me that I’m leaving one team that is very competitive and coming to a team that is just as competitive and very excited about the future. For me, it’s very exciting to be a part of an organization that wants to win. For a basketball player, for any pro athlete, that’s what you want to be a part of.”
Deng, who is earning $14.3 million in the final year of his contract and will be an unrestricted free agent in July if he doesn’t sign a three-year extension before then, which appears unlikely, said “I hope so” when asked if he would stay with the Cavs long term.
“I can’t answer that now, but I’m really excited,” the 28-year-old said. “It’s something new for me. I’m really looking forward to the challenge.”
Deng, the 2007 winner of the NBA Sportsmanship Award, already faced one challenge before leaving Chicago, which had been his home since he came to the NBA in 2004.
His family was visiting from London for the holidays, and explaining to his mother why he had been traded was not the easiest thing to do.
“My mom doesn’t really understand being traded,” he said. “That was one of the hardest things I had to do — explain to her that the organization I’ve been with for nine years no longer wanted me there.
“She couldn’t understand why. She feels like I’m a nice guy, I get along with everybody, so I had to explain to her. She was asking me, ‘Are you not playing well? What’s going on?’ That was the hardest part.”
That challenge conquered, Deng then had to speak with Cavs rookie Matthew Dellavedova, who has worn No. 9 all season. Deng has worn that number throughout his NBA career in honor of his mother, who had nine children.
“I knew I had to speak to him at some point,” said Deng, who has a slight British accent. “We sat in the locker room for a little while looking at one another. It was almost like we were about to break up.
“It was really hard, but he’s such a nice guy. He gave me the number. I’m definitely going to have to pay him back.”
Having already marveled at the food, hot tubs, televisions and other amenities available to the players at Cleveland Clinic Courts — “I was like a college kid,” the Duke product said — Deng’s most seamless transition may have been going through his first practice with the Cavs.
“Obviously, this was a big learning day for him, but he looked very comfortable out on the floor, and that’s just attributed to him being a very intelligent player who has a great feel for the game,” said Cleveland coach Mike Brown, who added Deng will “likely” start at small forward Friday when the Cavs begin a five-game road trip in Utah.
“He’s a veteran who’s still in his prime,” Brown added. “He adds to the culture of what we’re trying to do here. It’s a culture of creating winning habits while also understanding that winning means we’ve got to play defense. He’s definitely a two-way player that can add an amount of professionalism, a maturity and winning ingredients to any ballclub.”
Deng, a second-team NBA All-Defensive pick in 2012, is averaging a career-high 19.0 points on .452 shooting, 6.9 rebounds and 3.7 assists this season. He’s scored 20 or more points 10 times in 23 games played.
“He’s a two-time All-Star,” Brown said. “He’s definitely a two-way player. Any time you can add a guy who’s still in his prime that can not only affect wins, but that can also affect the culture, it’s a bonus. So it feels like it’s icing on the cake to the veterans who we already have.”
Deng spoke highly of a number of Cavs players, including Anderson Varejao, Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters, and said the talent is there for the team to greatly improve on its 12-23 record.
“The record really doesn’t speak to how good this team could be,” Deng said. “That’s the exciting part.”
Deng, who reportedly turned down a three-year, $30 million contract extension from the Bulls, openly admitted he was frustrated with those dealings, but accepted part of the blame.
“I wish we would have handled the whole contract situation better, but at the end of the day, either way, a decision was going to have to be made,” said Deng, whose agent is the highly respected Herb Rudoy. “I’m sure it wasn’t an easy decision for them, either. It happens, though.”
A number of Chicago players and coach Tom Thibodeau spoke extremely highly of Deng on Tuesday and were sorry to see him leave the Bulls. Deng was equally emotional while quickly packing up five bags to get to Cleveland.
“It’s basketball at the end of the day and it’s my job, but the hardest thing is those are friends,” he said. “You wake up the next day and know your friend is gone and is going to be competing against you.
“It’s my first time dealing with it,” he added. “It’s not a bad thing. I’ve been with the Bulls for so long. I wish I would have stayed there, but things didn’t work out that way.
“I’m happy I’m here. It’s not like I’m done. This is still very exciting. I’m still very lucky to be playing basketball.”
Brown is equally happy to have the small forward, but also knows the Cavs organization has to demonstrate to Deng that Cleveland is the right place for him to continue his career.
“He’s a pro,” Brown said. “He understands it’s a business. Any time you’re in a place for 10 years, I don’t care who you are, when a change happens, especially when it’s not in your control, it can be a little surprising.
“He’s excited about being here. He’s excited about trying to impact not just what he can do on the floor the right way, but just impacting the city and the organization and the team culturally in the right way. We’re looking forward to having him around.
“Any time anybody’s a free agent, it’s a two-way street,” Brown added. “I don’t think any of us are sitting here saying, ‘He’s ours forever.’ There’s got to be a good chemistry, a good feel, on both sides for it to continue in a positive way.”