As much as the Heat emphasized coming together and finding chemistry as teammates this preseason, Luol Deng hangs out around his coaches a lot.
“If you look right now, he’s talking to the coaches, he’s talking to [Heat president Pat Riley], he’s talking to [coach Erik Spoelstra], he’s trying to learn it,” Dwyane Wade said of Deng at practice Wednesday. “Because he doesn’t like to be a guy who makes any mistakes or not be in a position he needs to be in.”
Deng spent practice alternately talking to the Heat’s coaching staff, working with fellow newcomer James Ennis and drilling his three-point shot.
He is the last player to leave the gym, because it’s clear from how Spoelstra has used Deng so far that Miami is going to rely on Deng this season, especially for his defensive prowess.
The newbie has a lot of work to do.
“Deng, you know, he’s a hard player, one of the best cutters in the league. He makes the game a lot easier for a lot of guys just based off of his length, his talent,” Chris Bosh said. “Once he learns what we’re looking for on offense, the rotations on defense, getting that four position down a lot more, he’s going to be a big help for us.”
Deng was part of the starting lineup that saw flickers of success against Atlanta on Oct. 14 when he, Bosh, Wade, Danny Granger and Norris Cole held the Hawks to 16 points in the first quarter.
Cole, the core trio and Shawne Williams found similar first-quarter success Oct. 17 in the Heat’s first preseason win against Golden State.
Still, the defense broke down too quickly both times for Spoelstra to call it “improved.”
Atlanta’s Paul Millsap and his 23 points against Miami on Oct. 14 showed Deng is still getting used to the physicality of defending the four, and there’s a laundry list of defensive fundamentals the 6-9, 220-pound forward has to relearn now that he’s in Miami.
But Deng’s biggest hurdle is that the Heat’s defense is based on intuition and trust.
Meaning his development into a successful player in Miami hinges on things that come only with familiarity and the time it takes to erase nine years of Chicago-wrought defensive instincts.
“It’s built a lot on trust, just trust in each other and knowing that you do one thing, the other person has your back,” Deng said of the Heat’s defense. “That’s all teams, but it’s a little bit different.
“Being in Chicago so long, we kind of stayed in our corners and pushed the ball to our bigs, but this one is perimeter guys have to really be on a string together. As the ball moves, you might have a different guy, you just have know where you’re ending up and where you’re going to be.”
So Deng will continue to work with his coaches to master a new defensive system.
But he knows eventually, he has to go back in the classroom and go the Heat way — more trust and intuition than brainpower.
“Right now, the new guys, we’re doing a lot of thinking out there. When you think too much sometimes in basketball, it’s the worst thing you can do,” Deng said. “You just gotta play off of instincts. But I think it’ll get there.”