One of the rare predictable pleasures in this wretched 2014-15 season of Minnesota Timberwolves basketball is watching center Gorgui Dieng move up and down the court.
The upper torso on Dieng’s lanky 6-11 body is still and erect, the arms barely swinging. The lower half is likewise moving efficiently, but in what seems like a slight crouch — hips dipped, thighs churning. The entire gait has a feline stealth to it, as if inhabited by an anticipatory thirst to prowl and pounce.
This delightfully idiosyncratic movement becomes more pronounced after Dieng has made a particularly noteworthy play — a block, a bucket, a cagey assist — and is headed back up the court in transition. It has been happening with increasing frequency as the season unfolds.
The learning curve
During the Wolves most recent home game, against San Antonio last Saturday, Dieng was matched up against the ageless Tim Duncan, who was in the process of winning his fourth NBA championship right around the time Dieng first began playing organized basketball as a teenager in Senegal.
The pairing seemed to epitomize the hopeless disparity between the teams — the Wolves had lost 13 straight games and had no realistic chance of breaking that streak against the defending champion Spurs.
But it was revealing watching Dieng battle the odds.
On the first play of the game, Duncan caught Dieng cheating over on the ball-handler and beat him for a layup right down the middle of the paint. On But on San Antonio’s next possession, as Duncan posted Dieng up and started crab-dribbling down on the left block, Dieng reached out and poached the ball for a steal. He eventually finished the play with a beautiful loft pass from the top of the key down to a cutting Andrew Wiggins right at the hoop. Later, he surprised Duncan with a rapid move to his right to finish a short jumper on the right block, and after that totally outfoxed the Hall of Famer with an upfake that led to an easy layup — and that prowling gait back up the court.
When it was over, Dieng had scored 18 points on 7-for-11 shooting from the field and 4-for-4 from the free throw line to go along with a dozen rebounds and four blocked shots in 31 minutes. But the Wolves were a minus 15 points, the margin of the 108-93 defeat, when he was on the court.
After the game, Wolves coach Flip Saunders was equivocal, noting that “Gorgui is playing hard” but that “he is still making some mental mistakes.” Specifically, those breakdowns most often occur when Dieng departs from the team’s concept and tries to do too much, such as the way he shaded against the ball-handler on Duncan’s opening layup.
Saunders mentioned another play when Dieng called for a trap that wasn’t in the scheme, went through with it anyway and ceded a layup. “When you play a team like San Antonio and you don’t do it right, you are either going to give up a three-point shot or a layup,” he said, adding that Dieng “probably had about four or five of those tonight. But he had some other great covers. He had more great covers than he did bad. He is in such a pivotal position, where we ask him to do so much, that those things become very glaring.”
Walking the talk
The loss to San Antonio was the Wolves’ 21st defeat in 22 games. Dieng, who won a national championship playing in college at Louisville and experienced a respectable (by Minnesota standards) 40-42 record during his rookie season, could stand it no longer. Various accounts had the second-year pro calling out himself and his teammates after a recent practice, demanding that they no longer take losing for granted.
In the very next game, in Indiana against the Pacers Tuesday night, Dieng set the tone early, making 3-of-4 shots against leviathan 7-2 center Roy Hibbert, including a slam dunk and the same crafty up-and-under move for a layup that had worked on Duncan. He also had two steals and a pair of lofted assists to Wiggins that likewise duplicated his play against the Spurs.
But the signature play of that first quarter occurred when Dieng slipped on a wet part of the court while driving for a layup, tumbling down while the rest of the players raced back up the floor in transition from his turnover. Indiana quickly set up their offense and found Hibbert right near the hoop, being “guarded” by Mo Williams, who is nearly a foot shorter. But as Hibbert was set to lay it in, Dieng came flying out of nowhere to block the shot, a play that could only have occurred with maximum effort on a full-court sprint.
In the third quarter, Dieng fooled Hibbert into the air with a shot fake, then dipped beneath him and gathered himself for a slam dunk. But as he was going down, Hibbert reached out and yanked the rising Dieng by the shoulder with the weight of his 278 pound fall. Dieng lay writhing on the court; Hibbert was ejected from the game for a flagrant foul. Then Dieng gingerly got up and made both free throws from the foul.
While the story of the game was clearly the franchise record 52 points scored by Williams to break the losing streak, Dieng deserved a few footnotes for his leadership and his play. Williams noted that he frequently used Dieng’s screens to get open for his jumpers. And Dieng compiled a game-best plus 19 in the nine-point victory.
Interviewed after the game, he acknowledged that “my back hurts,” but “at some point it is more personal … I’m sick of losing.” Later, in reference to his injury-riddled team that has frequently started two teenagers and two second-year players, he pronounced that “there are no more young guys on this team anymore. After forty games [actually 37] there are no rookies.”
First half MVP?
Coming into this season, Dieng was expected to be a solid backup for starting center Nikola Pekovic, having played well enough in the second half of last year to earn a spot on the NBA All-Rookie second team. But Pek has been felled by chronic foot woes that sidelined him in mid-November after just nine games. The team’s third center, Ronny Turiaf, lasted just two games and 19 minutes before undergoing hip surgery and being subsequently traded. For most of the season, the backup to Dieng was undersized Jeff Adrien, who is just 6-7 and was released earlier this month. The latest center on the assembly line is seven-footer Miroslav Raduljica, but Saunders chose not to play him versus Hibbert on Tuesday. Meanwhile, Pekovic has finally begun practicing with the team again.
Through it all, Dieng has become the most blatant embodiment of the team’s Sisyphean grind. At 6-11 and 245 pounds he is almost always outsized by the man he is guarding, absorbing and doling out enormous punishment from the constant banging of the sort that Pekovic has cited for his own frequent injuries.
But the strain on Dieng is as much mental as physical. He is exceptionally bright, having passed his SAT test six months after learning English with a score that was 400 points above the requirement needed to attend college. And he is exceptionally competitive.
“What stood out immediately was that he played hard and made every effort to guard his man,” remembers Wolves general manager Milt Newton, who saw Dieng as a teenager at the Basketball Without Borders clinic in South Africa after Dieng was selected as one of the continent’s top sixty players less than two years after his first experience at organized hoops. Today, Newton says, “I think he competes as hard as anybody in the league.”
It is not hard to notice that Dieng is victimized by his own impatience. The “conceptual breakdowns” bemoaned by Saunders are frequently the result of him trying to do too much, often overcompensating for the all-too-frequent defensive lapses of his mostly inexperienced teammates. And it doesn’t help that the power forward playing beside him in the front court, almost always either Thad Young or Anthony Bennett, is as undersized as he is, and with less inclination to play solid defense.
The young wing players Andrew Wiggins and Shabazz Muhammad have appropriately garnered a lot of attention and praise for their energy and development thus far this season. But when it comes to dedicated, well-rounded production, a case can be made that Dieng has been the Wolves most valuable performer during this first half of the season.
Dieng ranks second in total minutes behind Wiggins. He is first in rebounding (nearly doubling the total of the second-place Wiggins), first in field-goal percentage, first in blocks, third in assists, and third in steals. In terms of advanced stats, his true shooting percentage ranks behind only Kevin Martin on the team, his PER efficiency is third to Martin and Muhammad, and his Win Shares are by far the highest on the roster. His box score plus/minus measurement is plus 3.3—everyone else on the team is in negative numbers. And his VORP (value over an average replacement player) is 3.2, tops on the team.
Not bad for someone whose salary ranks 11th on the roster, ahead of only Robbie Hummel, Troy Daniels, Glenn Robinson and Raduljica.
Blunt and thinking big
Talking to Dieng involves few wasted words. When I reached him by phone on Wednesday in Phoenix, and asked him how his back was doing after the Hibbert foul, he replied, “Sore. It was hurting when it happened but I felt like I had to get up.” As for his words to the team at the tail end of the losign streak, he said, “I think we need to take this more personal. Not think for yourself. When you are [losing] like that people are thinking about just good numbers. [Their own statistics.] It is a job and you have to love your job and respect it and try and do the right thing.”
“Gorgui wants to be great,” Newton says. “He says he wants to be the best African player ever. We keep reminding him there have been some pretty good ones, like Hakeem Olajuwon. But I think it is good that he sets his goals so high.”
The way Dieng sees it, the sky’s the limit. “Ten years ago I wasn’t even playing basketball. Now I am in the NBA,” he says simply. In response to questions about him needing to get bigger and stronger, he replies, “I don’t need to be 270, 280 pounds. I can be 250 and be flexible and faster. Strong is not what I worry about. Getting stops is what I care about. I don’t care about scoring, but if somebody scores on me, that’s when I get upset.”
Ironically, scoring and facilitating the offense of others may represent Dieng’s biggest upside. His true shooting percentage is a robust 59.7, yet he averages fewer shots per minute than anyone on the roster besides the fringe player Glenn Robinson. And if and when Pek returns, there is talk about sliding him over to power forward against certain matchups. Only part of this is motivated by his lack of size at center.
The little secret the Wolves would like to become better known is that Dieng is a deadly midrange shooter, perfectly suited for the pick-and-pop plays and for doling out assists in the high post. He leads the Wolves in the percentage of his shots that are taken from 10-16 feet away from the hoop (20.2 percent) and is second only to Hummel in his accuracy from that distance, converting 55.8 percent. Many of them are from his now-trademark banker that he appropriated from Tim Duncan.
As Newton puts it, the prospect of Dieng playing some power forward has to do with “his ability to shoot that 15-footer and his ability to pass the ball. If you watch some of our games, when he gets the ball in the high post, we need our other players to move and give him a chance to pass. Sometimes you’ll even hear him scream ‘move!’”
An intelligent player with big goals and large passion who manages to stay healthy and competitive under trying circumstances. Cheers to Gorgui Dieng. Long may he prowl.