In the season’s late hour, as tankers are buoyed by the prospect of adding Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker; playoff teams hope to see positive signs from the C.J. McCollums and Alex Lens of this world; meanwhile, the middle class remains out of contention for championships or high draft slots. With so much less on the table for those in the league’s middle ground, the emergence of rookies as rotation players or maybe more is the best that can be hoped for.
Gorgui Dieng is that player right now for the Minnesota Timberwolves. At 6”11, 238 lbs, the rookie center displayed the type of interior patrolling that has been absent from typical Timberwolves performances. Despite their similar size, Dieng’s playing style is totally antithetical to starter Nikola Pekovic. While the Serbian monolith is more likely to set a punishing screen and refuse to be bullied in the paint, Dieng possesses greater defensive length while lacking Pekovic’s brutality.
In his third career start, Dieng ended with 22 points, 21 rebounds and four assists in 38 minutes play. The numbers rightfully suggest his rebounding dominance but his offensive game is more confounding. Shooting 6-for-16, his shot was consistently affected at the rim, at one point being blocked by both Omer Asik then Terrence Jones on the follow-up. Hopefully with a combination of added strength and the requisite experience Dieng can learn to navigate his way through the reaches of interior defenders with either power or refining his upfake. Needless to say, with 11 free throw attempts, his ability to draw fouls – and knock down the subsequent free throws – is a huge plus.
It appears that his offensive game is capable of extending to the mid-range, an issue that will be more about confidence than technique. This will be enormous in terms of keeping him on the court as a viable option. The mid-range shot is definitely out of fashion but an open shot is the best shot and being able to exploit that could give Dieng a decade-long career.
However, it is on the defensive end where Dieng should be hoping to make his mark. While he may get lost in transition at times and he often gets caught flat-footed in the half-court, the shot-blocking presence Dieng provides adds a formerly unseen element to Minnesota’s defense. His emergence could lead to more minutes paired with Kevin Love, leaving Pekovic to spend more time leading a second unit that struggles to score.
In addition to the on-court benefits, Dieng proving his worth as an asset now allows Flip Saunders to move in whichever direction he likes come draft time. A backup center would not drastically affect offseason plans, but it does alleviate the need to find specialist interior defenders.
Lastly, the most positive takeaway from Dieng’s arrival into the rotation is the fruition of the plan laid out by Flip Saunders on draft night. After an era of draft calamities and contractual oddities, it’s heartwarming to see the beginnings of a reward for executing a simple plan. Finding contributors in the mid- to late first round is a difficult task in the NBA. With Shabazz Muhammad also emerging in recent weeks along with Dieng, Flip Saunders and Minnesota fans can feel a little more comfortable closing out the season.