Minnesota Timberwolves: The Gorgui Dieng Dilemma


Gorgui Dieng, born in Keber, Senegal, was selected by the Minnesota Timberwolves with the 21st overall selection in the NBA Draft this summer. He’s one of the guys you can’t help but call a freak athletically, Dieng is 6’11”, 23 years old and has a wingspan stretching to 7’4″ wide; he’s a monster defensively. Like many rookies, Dieng needs time develop certain attributes before he’s able to contribute on both ends of the floor, however — Dieng isn’t as much as project as a presence, but is he ready to contribute the defensive energy the Wolves desperately need behind starting center Nikola Pekovic.

Pekovic,”Big Pek,” signed a $60 million contract extension over the summer; he’s Minnesota’s center. However, Pek missed 20 games last year and his extremely large stature, the injury bug partial to nesting among Timberwolves and the fact he’s never played entire season over his three-year career make it all but certain he’ll miss time this season. To avoid injury during contract negotiations, Pek didn’t participate in Eurobasket competition with his home country of Montenegro, a decision both the Wolves and Pek camps thought best.

The team signed Ronnie Turiaf to a two-year, $3.2 million deal that addresses the center situation behind Pekovic while also bringing on board a veteran presence to the locker room. Turiaf spent last season with the Los Angeles Clippers, where he averaged two points and two boards playing 10 minutes per game in 65 appearances coming off the bench, not exactly the most productive numbers.

The value of Ronny Turiaf‘s presence can’t be overstated, he’s already a member of the Wolves family — Turiaf and former Minnesota forward Fred Hoiberg endured aortic aneurysms within five weeks of each other in 2005. The two grew close.

"“He told me what would happen right ahead of me,” Turiaf said of Hoiberg. “Anytime I had a question, he was there for moral support.”"

This season Turiaf will honor his close friend by wearing number 32, the number Hoiberg wore during his time with the Timberwolves.

Chris Johnson is another player at Wolves camp bidding for a roster spot. Johnson joined the team January on a 10-day contract and because of injury woes played with the team through the remainder of the season. In 30 appearances he averaged four points and two boards and played 10 minutes a game. Though his numbers, identical to Turiaf’s, weren’t exactly productive, Johnson gave fans reason to cheer with his dunking and shot blocking abilities.

Johnson’s heartfelt journey from the NBA Development League to the Timberwolves, in addition to his playmaking ability around the rim, makes it hard for fans to envision his departure, the $346,781 of guaranteed money he’s owed also makes him a tough let-go for the front office. The Wolves could buy him out, but why waste the money?

President of basketball operations Flip Saunders is a proponent of minor leagues, he could potentially send players to the Timberwolves D-League affiliate, the Iowa Energy.

"“We might not have anyone go down there this year, but we are very open about it and we’re going to have a very good relationship with our Iowa team.”"

Saunders’ arrival has instilled confidence and relief among the fans, who can trust that personnel decisions moving forward are thoroughly assessed, made in the best interest of the team’s future, both the immediate and foreseeable. It’s up to him and coach Rick Adelman to determine who receives the minutes at center behind Pekovic.

The argument in favor of the 23-year-old rookie out of Louisville is a Dieng good one. Last week I explained why Shabazz Muhammad, the 14th overall selection, fits the Wolves’ needs at small forward using the per-40 minutes statistic. As a reminder, stats per 40-minutes played is a statistic (e.g., assists) divided by minutes played, multiplied by 40. Dieng averaged nearly 13 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks last season, ranking 23rd of all NCAA Division I in blocks per game. Louisville’s defense ranked No. 1 in the nation. Considering he broke his hand five games into the season last year, it’s only fair to revert to the season prior to his final year at Louisville — Dieng average of just less than five blocks per game was eighth best in the NCAA. With a weight of 230 pounds in addition to the aforementioned height and wingspan, Dieng’s size and shot blocking ability make him an asset defensively; no NBA experience necessary.

Dieng’s offensive skill set doesn’t qualify as lackluster, though it’s not quite worthy of any praise. Last year he shot 53 percent from the field, hitting five of nine attempts per game. He’s better in the pick-and-roll game than in the post, Dieng was only 28 percent on possessions with his back to the basket compared to 48 percent when attempting a jump shot or driving toward the bucket. There’s no doubt he’s raw still, but, maybe the video below makes you a believer that Dieng isn’t a project, but an accomplished basketball player who’s only going to get better with time.

Will the Timberwolves keep four centers on the roster? I doubt it, so by process of elimination it will come down to Johnson and Dieng. The Wolves are thrilled to have Turiaf, it’s a great story for the still relatively young franchise while Johnson’s tremendous effort last season helped temporarily relieve the pain during the second half of last season. However; Dieng represents the future, and possibly even more, if the young man from Senegal is able to hone his offensive skills and continue to learn on both ends of the floor — there’s no telling how high his ceiling may be.

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