The Los Angeles Lakers’ biggest free agency signing this offseason was Luol Deng, who most recently played two years for the Miami Heat. Deng is joining the Lakers in his 15th NBA season, and recently he signed a contract which will reportedly pay him $72 million over four years. He is expected to begin the season as the team’s starter at the small forward position.
Two years ago, the Lakers signed another free agent forward whose background and experience were eerily similar to that of Deng. Like Deng, Carlos Boozer had long been rumored to be of interest to the Lakers’ front office, and in Boozer’s 13th NBA season, they were able to sign him. Like Deng, he joined the Lakers after playing for three other teams in his NBA career two of which were Chicago and Cleveland.
In his one season with the Lakers, Boozer’s salary was $16.8 million, very close to what Deng will be paid (although in Boozer’s case, his former team was required to pay most of that cost). Like Deng, Boozer was brought in to mentor younger players and to provide a calm, stabilizing influence in the locker room.
The similarities between Deng and Boozer do not end there. Both were born abroad, Boozer in Germany and Deng in the Sudan. Both played college basketball for Coach K at Duke University, where they led their respective teams to a final four appearance and in Boozer’s case an NCAA title. Boozer was 32 when he signed with the Lakers in July 2014, while Deng is 31. Both were two-time Eastern Conference All-Stars mid-career. Both are 6’9” tall, though Boozer was more of a power forward and Deng is primarily known for playing the three spot.
Boozer has the better overall career statistics, although it is close. He made 52 percent of his shots, 72 percent of his free throws, and averaged 16.2 points per game, with 9.5 rebounds and 2.2 assists. Deng has averaged 15.5 points per game on 46 percent shooting, converted 77 percent of his free throws with 6.2 rebounds and 2.4 assists per contest. Both men were on teams that made the playoffs off and on throughout their careers, but neither played on a team that won an NBA title.
Boozer’s lone season with the Lakers was tumultuous. It was Byron Scott’s first year as head coach, and after playing him far too many minutes, Kobe Bryant was in and out of the lineup before missing the rest of the season with an injury. Steve Nash was unable to play, so he retired. Jeremy Lin was brought in to play point guard in the hopes he could resurrect his career, but he was inconsistent and quickly fell out of favor with Coach Scott, who preferred playing Ronnie Price at the point. Prized rookie Julius Randle missed the entire year after breaking his leg in the first regular season game. Ed Davis was one of the few bright spots on the roster, but he was undervalued by Scott and did not receive the minutes he was due.
In the midst of the chaos that could have sent the players’ morale spiraling downward, Boozer was indeed a calm, professional influence in the locker room. He was signed in part to mentor Randle, but Randle was out for the season. Like everyone else on the team that year, Scott shuttled Boozer in and out of the starting lineup, and there was no continuity or consistency. Cynics would say that Scott was deliberately “tanking,” and the team’s performance on the court supported that conspiracy theory. Rookie Jordan Clarkson was the lone bright spot, even though Scott did his best to suppress Clarkson’s growth by barely playing him the first half of the year.
It is easy to say that Boozer played poorly, but in truth, the team was so awful and so poorly coached it was impossible for him (or anyone) to make a real difference on the court. Boozer’s NBA career seemed to come to an end after his one year with the Lakers, but he has reportedly agreed to terms on a deal to play in China.
Boozer had an expiring contract when the Lakers signed him, but Deng reportedly has a four-year commitment. When Boozer joined the Lakers, his skills had noticeably declined in recent seasons, while Deng was still playing at a reasonably high level this past season. Thus, there is every reason to believe the team will get more from Deng than it got from Boozer, although it may be a stretch to say that Deng will still be contributing much in years three and four of his contract.
Deng has an outstanding reputation around the league as a sportsman and is said to be one of the NBA’s most popular players among his peers. In the 2007-08 time frame alone, he won three prestigious awards: NBA Sportsman’s Award voted by the players; The Golden Icon Award for best sports’ role model; and the United Nations Refugee Agency Humanitarian of the Year Award. He has worked tirelessly for numerous charities over the years.
Deng also has a reputation as a solid defensive player. In 2012, he earned NBA All-Defensive Second Team honors. The Lakers’ perimeter defense has been one of the team’s biggest concerns the past three seasons, and there is an expectation that Deng will help correct that problem. Certainly, Deng will contribute more on defense that Boozer was able to do.
On a team filled with young players struggling to cope with fame, fortune, social media, and a relentless schedule, having Deng around as a role model is a good thing and could prove to be a very important role. Also, just as Boozer was brought in to mentor Randle, Deng will be expected to mentor rookie Brandon Ingram. Hopefully, it will not become a matter of contention between them as to who starts and who plays the most minutes.
Deng is in his 15th NBA season and presumably knows he is in the final stretch of his career. Still, he has a lot to offer on and off the court. His outstanding reputation precedes him, and there is reason to believe he will make a far more valuable contribution than Boozer was able to make in his one Lakers’ season.