Being a rookie for the Minnesota Timberwolves hasn’t been the cushiest situation. Aside from the yearly potential of sub-zero temperatures followed by a blizzard in the middle of May, Minnesota hasn’t had an impact rookie since Kevin Love burst onto the scene during the 2008-09 season (and even that was compromised by Kurt Rambis‘ odd grudge against his future All-Star).
More recently, head coach Rick Adelman has been reluctant to play rookies while opting for underachieving veterans who fit his system. Derrick Williams and Shabazz Muhammad are just a couple players to know this feeling, but sitting in the seat next to them was Gorgui Dieng, who has come out of the shadows to become one of the most pleasant surprises of the 2013-14 season for the Timberwolves.
After averaging just 6.5 minutes in his first 42 games of the season, Adelman dusted off Dieng and has gotten solid results. Since playing 37 minutes in a win over the Sacramento Kings on March 16, the 21st overall pick of the 2013 NBA Draft has averaged 12.5 points per game and 11.6 rebounds per game in his past 17 appearances. While the uptick in playing time (30.4 MPG last 17 games) has been due to injuries to Nikola Pekovic and Ronny Turiaf, the results have been warranted as Dieng was honored as the Western Conference Rookie of the Month for March.
With the massive display of potential that was capped off by a 22-point, 21-rebound performance against the Houston Rockets on March 20, the discussions have begun as to what kind of role Dieng could have moving forward.
In an realistic scenario, the Timberwolves can hope Dieng can develop into a backup center role behind Pekovic. It may not seem like it, but many teams would be willing to fill that role by striking a deal involving a heavily protected first-round draft pick to get someone like Jason Thompson or Thaddeus Young this summer. By placing Dieng into that role, the Timberwolves can relieve themselves of another, “We gave up that pick for him?” scenario several years down the road.
But what if Dieng exceeds expectations? Could he shoulder the load in the middle if the Timberwolves decided to ship Pekovic for a flashy piece to please an impatient Love? That would depend on several things.
First, a lot would have to do with the Timberwolves need for a rim protector. As good as Pekovic is on the offensive end, he’s a liability on the other end of the court. During Dieng’s recent hot streak, he’s been averaging 1.5 blocks per game, including recording at least one in his last nine appearances. With Minnesota’s defensive issues (103.9 points per game ranks 26th in the NBA), a shot blocker could be one thing that helps them win the close games that have eluded them this season.
Dieng also is raw offensively, but can get the job done for a departed Pekovic. In the 17 games he’s received regular playing time, Dieng (55 percent from the field) has shot better than Pekovic (53 percent shooter on the season). That suggests that the Timberwolves wouldn’t lose much offensively if they made the switch.
All of this sounds great if the Timberwolves can move Pekovic’s massive contract, but Dieng isn’t your average rookie. With an age of 24, he may be entering the prime of his career already. Such a situation could mean that he’s already peaked and leaning on a vast improvement down the road could be a mistake.
But bold gambles need to be the name of the game for the Timberwolves this summer as they try to lock up Love to a long-term contract. If they feel Dieng can thrive in a starting role (and again…move Pekovic’s insane salary), he could be the Timberwolves’ next star. Otherwise, it could just be an impressive stretch in another lost season.
Chris Schad is a staff writer for Hoops Habit covering the Minnesota Timberwolves. His work has also been featured on Pro Football Spot and Cold Omaha. You can follow Chris on Twitter @crishad.