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Extra Pass: Gorgui Dieng’s breakthrough opens options for Minnesota Timberwolves

Mar 31, 2014, 8:00 AM EDT

Kevin Love, Samuel Dalembert

Gorgui Dieng, as the story goes, protested leaving a Louisville game his freshman year after fouling out because he didn’t realized offensive fouls counted toward the limit.

That was forgivable, considering Dieng was so raw. He had lived in Senegal two years prior, and he was ineligible even to practice for weeks leading up to his first Louisville season.

His transition to understanding NBA fouling didn’t go much more smoothly. Until the Minnesota Timberwolves’ 20th game, Dieng had more fouls than points for the season.

That was a bit more problematic.

Minnesota drafted Dieng No. 21 overall last June, making him the oldest pick in the first round at age 23. *Even though Dieng left Louisville after his junior season, it’d been four years since anyone that old had been drafted so high (Tyler Hansbrough, No. 13 by the Pacers in 2009).

*Colton Iverson, whom the Pacers drafted No. 53 and then traded to the Celtics, was the only older player drafted in 2013. Boston didn’t sign him.

In other words, Dieng lacked the untapped potential of his draft-classmates. For Minnesota to justify his selection, Dieng needed to produce immediately.

Well, he didn’t. Far from it. For most of the season, Dieng frequently received DNP-CDs, playing just a few minutes when Rick Adelman summoned him off the bench.

But after Nikola Pekovic suffered an ankle injury March 14 against the Bobcats, Dieng started six games at center. He had double-doubles in his first three games, including 22 points and 21 rebounds against the Rockets. Even after going to the bench for the Timberwolves’ last two games, Dieng has sustained his breakthrough.

  • First 42 games: 1.7 points, 2.3 points, 0.3 steals and 0.6 blocks per game
  • Last 8 games: 11.9 points, 13.0 rebounds, 1.0 steals and 1.0 blocks per game

Eight games isn’t necessarily a large enough sample to evaluate a player. But the only other players to hit those point-rebound-steal-blocks marks in an eight-game span this season: Andre Drummond, Dwight Howard, DeMarcus Cousins, Joakim Noah, DeAndre Jordan, LaMarcus Aldridge and Anthony Davis. To say the least, those are all NBA-caliber starters.

So where does that leave Dieng?

He’s active under the basket, sealing defenders and using his good hands to get the ball in prime position. Given space to elevate, he does so quickly for high-percentage looks around the basket. If opponents force him to delay his shot, he becomes much more defendable as his post moves lack counters other than than repeated pump fakes.

Dieng doesn’t have much of an expanded offensive game – 91 percent of his makes have been assisted or putbacks (using data from MySynergySports) – but the Timberwolves are increasingly running pick-and-rolls with him, and he’s comfortable with hook shots inside and short face-up jumpers.

He can weave his way through crowds for tip-ins, again taking advantage of his ability to elevate quickly. He’ll make opponents pay for not boxing out.

The same ability to punish opponents’ mistakes exists on the other side of the ball, too. Don’t throw a lazy pass or take a careless dribble near Dieng, who possesses a 7-foot-3.5 wingspan.

He’s really rounding into form for a first-year player, even one who is already 24. In this shallow rookie crop, Dieng could even make the All-Rookie second team with a strong close to the season.

Does Minnesota, which is 36-36 and has already faded out of the playoff race, regret not giving Dieng an expanded role sooner? Maybe, but he gave little indication prior that he was ready.

The bigger question: What do the Timberwolves do now?

They must consider trading the 28-year-old Pekovic, who will have four years and $47.9 million left on his contract. He’s 17.8 points and 8.8 rebounds per game this season, a career year. He should still hold value around the league, and Minnesota could use whatever he fetches in a trade plus the possible salary savings to upgrade its roster. Then, Dieng could start regularly.

Or the Timberwolves could trade Dieng, though it’s not easy to trade players on rookie contracts. Few teams are willing to part with their own rookies, i.e., the players who have similar values and matching contracts.

How to handle Kevin Love does – and should – take priority for the Timberwolves. But, suddenly, they have options at center.

It’s difficult to imagine Love re-signing with the Timberwolves unless they make the playoffs next season. And while the Western Conference is likely to revert to the remain and not remain historically strong, the road won’t be easy.

Minnesota could use upgrades over Corey Brewer at small forward, Kevin Martin at shooting guard and/or Ricky Rubio at point guard. In isolation, each of those three is fine, but collectively, the trio is hardly infallible.

Dieng has already shown he deserves starting consideration next season. In their final 10 games, the Timberwolves must get a better grasp of Dieng’s value and how they can best use him this summer.

Keeping Love, if that’s what Minnesota is committed to doing, won’t be an easy lock to pick. If a key exists, it might just be Dieng.

  1. aboogy123456 - Mar 31, 2014 at 9:10 AM

    Being a playoff team is not going to entice love to stay in Minnesota. He’s seen how superstars are teaming up to go after championships, and he’s said this before in interviews. Until Minnesota can draft or convince another star player (or two) to sign there, he’s off to a big market where that’s more likely to happen.

    • therealhtj - Mar 31, 2014 at 11:15 AM

      No one with a choice is going to sign in Minnesota, it’s really that simple. Unless the 14th overall pick this year somehow becomes a superstar, that team’s going to be at best a borderline playoff contender. If that’s what hinges on Love staying or going, he may as well start packing now.

    • pacific123ocean - Mar 31, 2014 at 2:30 PM

      I could really care less whether Love stays or goes. But, the idea of superstars teaming up doesn’t guarantee a championship…just ask Carmelo. And, for all the Laker fans on here, the reality is that right now, the Wolves are closer to Championship than the Lakers

      • aboogy123456 - Mar 31, 2014 at 3:29 PM

        The wolves are a better team but being better doesn’t mean there is any path to a championship if he stays in minnesota. For love to win, he needs to play with someone better than him, and what other star is going to sign in minnesota? I wouldn’t consider Amare a star either, so bad example. And the star point is something I heard love say about the league in general. He wants to be in the spotlight as much as you want to deny it.

      • eugenesaxe1 - Mar 31, 2014 at 8:34 PM

        What superstar did LaLa team up with?

  2. adoombray - Mar 31, 2014 at 10:25 AM

    Kevin Love is one of my favorite players in the league but listen it’s not the end of the world of he leaves Minnesota. Love plays absolutely no defense and that’s not an option in the West. People keep talking about this situation like Minnesota desperately needs to keep him – but they don’t. Life goes on. If he wants to go sign in Los Angeles to be the only guy dumb enough to play for Fredo Buss, let him.

  3. luvmnsports2012 - Mar 31, 2014 at 10:58 AM

    @adoombray…obviously u haven’t watched love this year. Actually his defense is getting MUCH better. So to say he doesn’t play defense what so ever is a dumb statement! For Minnesota it would be a tragedy to lose Love! Who would they get in return that would seem legit? In Minnesotas history it will probably be some wash up or a guy of half Loves skill and ability to score from ANYWHERE on the court! I would say do what u gotta do to keep the baller!!!

    • borderline1988 - Mar 31, 2014 at 11:15 AM

      Kevin Love is not leading his team to an NBA championship any time soon. He’s like Carmelo on the Knicks..a fantastic talent but he’s not ‘The Guy’ who will take you to the next level (although admiteddly I thought the same of Dirk Nowitzki before 2011).

      If he’s really that good, the least he could do is lead his team to the playoffs. And this isn’t like Lebron on the Cavs where the team around him is terrible…the Timberwolves have a decent amount of talent on the roster.

      IMO, Ricky Rubio is one of the most over-rated players in the NBA. Overall, this Timberwolves team is just not as good as it’s hyped to be. They lack athletiscm and top-notch defense. That doesn’t bode well in today’s NBA

    • adoombray - Mar 31, 2014 at 12:32 PM

      Scoring 3’s and 4’s are a dime a dozen. Kevin Love is a stretch 4, and he’s the very best stretch 4, but that’s a problem when you need to pair him with both a 3 and 5 that plays defense to cover up his weaknesses. I’m sure he works very hard at covering those weaknesses but Minnesota will still have Rubio, Shabazz, and Pek to work with into the future.

  4. andreboy1 - Mar 31, 2014 at 3:49 PM

    Love is a number 2 option if he wants to win a title.

    End of story.

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