When the Los Angeles Lakers take the court on Wednesday night against the Orlando Magic, a player in the second year of his four-year $72 million deal won't be on the court. He won't be in street clothes watching from the bench, either, because he's not injured.
So, what exactly does Luol Deng do during games? Where is he?
"During the game, I do as much conditioning as I can," Deng, standing in the visitors' locker room in Toronto ahead of tip-off, tells NBCLA.com. "At home, there's a time period where me meet at 30 (minutes before tip-off). The warmup and everything is at 24 minutes. I try to use that time. I might miss a little bit of the first quarter, but I watch the games."
The two-time All-Star played 13 minutes in the team's season opener and has not seen the court since.
"It obviously hasn't been an ideal situation for him, but he's been great," Lakers coach Luke Walton said when Deng's name came up a couple nights earlier in Chicago, which is where the forward played his best basketball.
Walton, who places a premium on keeping conversations private, added, "We've talked about it—me and him. It's what the two of us had discussed in private and decided what was best for both parties."
Surrounded by familiar faces asking questions and bringing up his glory years, Deng acted as the star attraction in the Lakers' locker room in Chicago despite not having appeared in a game for over three months.
"It's been hard," the 32-year-old admitted. "It's not easy not to play. At the end of the day, I'm trying to control what I can control."
That saying is one that Walton and the Lakers use often. "Control what you can control" is what Walton cited when asked if he ever wondered about his job security during a nine-game skid a few weeks earlier, and it's also the message he passes onto his players whenever trade talk swirls overhead. With the trade deadline fast approaching, that phrase isn't about to exit the Lakers' locker room, and, likely, neither is Deng due to a contract that is nearly impossible to trade.
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"I would love to play," Deng continued talking to reporters at the United Center. "I don't know if it will be here [with the Lakers] or not, to be honest with you. [I] just keep working on my game and see. The only way I could ever answer to anything like this is by my game, not by my words. So, I'm not really a guy that's going to speak all day and try to get people to feel for me."
But Deng isn't playing, and he likely won't be playing anytime soon. So, the Lakers' front office will likely need to either figure out how to shed his salary via a trade, buy-out or the stretch provision, with the last of those three options the most likely. Fans boil their blood and blow steam out their ears at the mere mention of Deng's name because of how poorly the signing has worked out for the team, but that's not the player's fault.
To his credit, Deng continued to be a professional and positive influence behind the scenes.
"If you come to any of our shootarounds, any of our practices, he's out there with our young guys afterwards working," Walton said about the forward. "He's running. He's staying in shape. So, he's been a complete professional about it. He's been helpful around the locker room."
"With the coaching staff, I leave the coaches to do their thing," Deng told NBCLA.com. "With the players, I'm always trying to help them with what I see and what I know. For me, it's just who I am. I wish I was out there, but it is what it is. So for me, I really enjoy watching these guys succeed. There's a thing about when you spend so much time with people, you just care more than the game. Sometimes there's [sic] games that we lose and you're frustrated, but at the same time, I'm happy how each individual kind of performed and then, when certain players are struggling, I'll really just try to get them to understand the bigger perspective or the bigger picture where my rookie year or my second year, I was ready to break everything. And here I am 14 years later and that's because I've developed the mentality of next play—good or bad, next play."
The most senior player on the Lakers' roster adds, "And that's pretty much what I'm doing with my situation also. I just believe that there's a next play."
Deng arrived in Los Angeles with the reputation of being a good guy to add to the locker room, especially for a young team. A year and a half into his Lakers' career, the South Sudanese refugee who found a home in Great Britain is living up to his reputation off the court even, even if all fans can do is focus on the price tag attached with the player.
"With Julius (Randle), I always tell him to focus on the rebounding," Deng provided an example of his influence. "'The game will come to you.' With the energy that he plays with, I try to get him to get four offensive rebounds per game. That's a goal. Six defensive rebounds. Whatever else he gives me after the 10 rebounds, I always tell him, you know, 'You were plus-three today.' I don't really play with the plus-minuses. I look at it differently."
As a starter, Randle is averaging 9.3 rebounds per game this season, and the 23-year-old forward has topped that 10-rebound target three times in his past four games and seven times since the calendar flipped to 2018.
"It's always positive," Deng said when asked how his teammates react to his wisdom. "I think guys respect me for what I've done, how hard I work. So, I don't really have a hard time relaying messages to guys."
Just as easily, of course, Deng could have mentally checked out, collected his checks and disassociated himself from the team that had effectively turned its back on him.
"It's not their fault that I'm not playing," Deng explained his willingness to help teammates despite the awkward situation with management. "I can't really blame them for anything. Plus, they really respect me, not just basketball wise. Anytime you're in a locker room and guys really go at you and make fun of you, that's when you know they're comfortable with you. If I'm in the locker room and guys aren't talking to me, then that's a different situation. We have a good group of guys."
He added, "If I don't help, I'll always regret it."
While he's not explicitly or formally demanding a trade, Deng is not delusional about his status with the purple and gold. He's staying in shape and wants to play. He has the outlook that he'll be back on the NBA court, so he prepares each day as if the next day will provide the opportunity to get on the court. But with every passing day, Deng's shot at redemption seems less and less likely to come with the Lakers.
"They made it clear, obviously, that I'm not wanted here," Deng says before uttering that familiar phrase that floats around the Lakers' locker room. "So for me, I just got to focus on what I can control."