SACRAMENTO - Last summer, then-agent Jason Levien spent weeks negotiating with Bulls management, trying to convince the club Luol Deng was worth the $71 million over six years they eventually paid him.
Now Levien is an assistant general manager with the Kings, working in an office just off the weight room where Deng spent part of Thursday building up his body.
Deng has spent most of January building up his statistics, which is a good thing for the investment the Bulls made and maybe not so much for Levien and the Kings on Friday night.
As the Bulls play their next-to-last game of the month, Deng will attempt to continue the pace he has set in the nine games since he returned from a sprained left ankle. In January, Deng leads the Bulls with 17.2 points, 8.6 rebounds and, perhaps most tellingly, 1.89 steals per game. He also is shooting 50 percent this month.
"I'm better when I'm moving without the ball and the ball is moving," Deng said. "I don't like taking shots out of rhythm. And sometimes when we take quick shots, it affects the way I'm playing."
Deng looked like a statue at times earlier this season, standing in the corner, relegated to stationary jump shots as the Bulls tried to keep the middle open for Derrick Rose's penetration.
Now, Deng is getting in passing lanes on defense, slashing on offense and resembling the player on the rise he was during the 2006-07 season.
"We condensed our package a little bit, and he's adapting to it well," coach Vinny Del Negro said. "He's more familiar with what we're trying to do, and he hasn't been in and out of the lineup [with] his injuries, which has helped him find a comfort zone.
"He's working off guys, and guys are getting used to working off him in the system. He just has to keep being aggressive."
That shouldn't be an issue. Even when Deng was struggling along with 39 percent shooting in November, he continued to apply off-season lessons learned at IMG Academy basketball program in Bradenton, Fla.
"A popular myth is when players sign big contracts, they stop working," said David Thorpe, executive director of the Pro Training Center at IMG and also an ESPN.com analyst. "Lu felt unbelievably compelled to earn his deal."
Thus, Deng would work on playing more athletically, dunking in warm-ups to promote explosiveness and making a conscious effort to be more active on defense, particularly off the ball.
"It took me longer than I thought to get used to new coaches, new systems," Deng said. "It might have helped sitting out [with injury] and watching what we're trying to do. Now, we're just moving with and without the ball a lot more. That way, I can read my defender. And my teammates are reading my game.
"Playing like this helps the team and helps my confidence."