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Deng, Duhon thrive in NBA

After playing their last game in a Duke jersey—the 2004 national semifinal loss to the Connecticut Huskies—Chris Duhon and Luol Deng expected to go their separate ways.

But in a fortunate twist of fate, the two former Blue Devils now find themselves starting for the Chicago Bulls and helping each other make the transition to the NBA.

“It makes both of our jobs easier,” Duhon said of the duo’s friendship. “We have a great feel and understanding for one another—we can help each other out in tough situations. I can motivate him and he can motivate me, and that year of experience shows that we have a connection out there on the court. I kind of have a feel for him a little more because I’ve played with him for a year.”

Duhon and Deng’s jump to the pros has caused transformations on three different fronts.

The new-look Blue Devils have endured a season-long growing experience as they try to win in spite of their depleted bench. Deng and Duhon have undergone attitude changes as they transition into the professional ranks. And finally, after six losing seasons, the Chicago Bulls have found a team chemistry that works—the former Duke standouts have played vital roles in the revival of the franchise.

Deng, picked seventh overall in June’s NBA draft, is the typical youthful player coveted simply for his raw talent. Duhon, who played four years of college basketball, did not have that same potential in eyes of NBA general managers.

Duhon was not selected until the middle of the second round. He was not extended a contract until late in the preseason and narrowly avoided being cut from the team.

Despite the age difference, Deng and Duhon’s learning experiences have been similar. Bulls head coach Scott Skiles likes both players for being “hard workers,” and he noted their ability to work through their struggles with extra practice sessions.

Both players understand the higher level of commitment that is demanded in the NBA and acknowledge the cut-throat pressure.

“This is business now,” Duhon said. “If you don’t produce, then you don’t play and you’re fired. You have to go out and give it your all and keep fighting for your job. You just have to worry about yourself, run your race and don’t worry about what other people are doing.

“You just have to know that when you get around the court that you’re going to work. I make the most of my minutes, defend and run the team—and just be Chris Duhon.”

Along with the change in scenery and attitude has come a change in lifestyle. Duhon now lives with former Blue Devil teammate Andy Means and has adapted to the rigorous schedule of the NBA.

“We take it easy [at night],” Duhon said. “If you want to have that type of lifestyle you can, but this is a job. You have to take it seriously and be in tip top shape. The NBA is just a different life pretty much.”

Deng sprained his ankle four games ago and is temporarily inactive on the injured list. Although he is only 19, he has also shown the maturity and commitment to the new lifestyle.

“If you’re not responsible off the court, then its going to catch up to you on the court, “ Deng said. “ You’re a man now—when you come into the big leagues you make a lot of decisions on your own and you just have to make the right decisions.”

The Bulls have a young team, and the older players are now accustomed to coaching the rookies through their first season.

“The thing I see in them is that maturity level,” 11-year veteran Antonio Davis said. “Even though Luol is 19, you see he’s very mature. You just look at Chris Duhon, who wasn’t even supposed to be on our team, and now he’s starting for us.”

The duo was fortunate to land on a Chicago Bulls team that is just emerging from a long rebuilding process. After losing their first nine games of the regular season, the Bulls decided to start both Duhon and Deng for the first time in their careers Nov. 24 against the Utah Jazz. Chicago won its first game of the season 101-99.

Since then, the two have become permanent fixtures on the starting lineup and are on pace to lead the Bulls to their first winning record season since they won the NBA Championship in 1998.

Deng started out his rookie campaign with a flurry of scoring, averaging 19 points per contest in the first five games of the regular season. His scoring has since dropped a little, but he is still the third among rookies in scoring with 12.2 per contest, trailing former Connecticut stars Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon, who now play for the Charlotte Bobcats and the Bulls, respectively.

In the Sophomore-Rookie Challenge, Deng scored 17 points, tied for the most among rookies.

“I never really want to put pressure on me, I just come to play,” Deng said. “I know I work hard enough to be in that starting role, so I that’s where I really get my confidence.”

While Deng was enjoying the festivities of All-Star Weekend, Duhon appeared in Cameron Indoor Stadium as a spectator for the Duke-Wake Forest game Feb. 20 and even made an appearance at George’s Garage with former teammate Jay Williams.

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