The Minnesota Timberwolves survived embarrassment by holding on for a 114-108 road win Wednesday night against a Memphis Grizzlies opponent decimated by injuries. And as with the previous two contests on this four-game swing away from Target Center, third-year center-forward Gorgui Dieng was indispensable.
In the first nine minutes of the game, Dieng scored seven points, gathered three rebounds, dished three assists and blocked two shots to propel the Wolves to a season-high 42 points that put them up by 17 after the first quarter. Memphis closed the gap to 9 by halftime, but Dieng closed out a 13-3 Wolves run in the first 2:30 of the third quarter with a trio of assists to three different teammates (Andrew Wiggins, Ricky Rubio and Zach LaVine) operating out of the high post.
When he went to the bench midway through that third period, Memphis promptly went on a 9-0 run of their own over the next 2:17, with all of the points coming via lay-ups, dunks and foul shots off the made baskets, compelling coach Sam Mitchell to rush him back into the game.
Less than two minutes into the fourth quarter, Dieng slipped slightly trying to stop himself on a dribble-drive, straining the area around his left hip and abdomen. Writhing in pain as he moved up the court, he motioned for the bench to stop play and take him out, something that occurred after a stoppage in play a couple of possessions later (during which he grabbed another rebound). But after Memphis had again closed the gap down to 8 points with four minutes to play, and Dieng had assured the medical personnel he could continue, Mitchell — no-doubt gleefully — inserted him back in the action.
With just 84 seconds remaining, the Grizzlies had whittled the margin down to four as Rubio rifled a pass to Dieng 20 feet from the basket near the right corner. Catching it in rhythm, he never hesitated, the shot hitting nothing but twine on its path through the hoop.
When it was over, the Wolves were plus 20 in the 31:42 Dieng played, and minus 14 in the 16:18 that he sat on the sidelines. He scored efficiently, with 15 points on eight field-goal attempts. He grabbed six rebounds and registered seven assists versus only one turnover. For the seventh straight game, and 11th time in the past 12 games, he blocked at least two shots (three, this time).
Dieng was almost equally crucial to the proceedings of the first two games on the road trip. In Minnesota’s huge upset win over Oklahoma City, he had a career-high 25 points on the strength of 11 straight makes at the free throw line, grabbed nine rebounds, executed a trio of blocks, and was a game-best plus-19 in 31 minutes of action. And in the last-second loss to Phoenix, the Wolves were hamstrung in the fourth quarter when the Suns reverted to a small lineup and Mitchell elected to likewise go small and sit Dieng the final ten minutes of the game.
For the third straight season, Dieng has insinuated himself into the fabric of the Wolves rotation. Like Rick Adelman and Flip Saunders before him, Mitchell has discovered that keeping Dieng out of the lineup can be hazardous to holistic team hoops.
Every October, Dieng gets no — at least insufficient — respect. He entered the NBA as a late first-round pick, taken 21st overall, wiped out realistic playing time by the gaudy front court tandem of Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic, the former a supposed MVP candidate on a supposed playoff contender, the latter just inked to a five-year, $60 million contract. Dieng was an elderly rookie (23 years old) who came late to basketball as a native of Senegal, playing for a coach, Adelman, bent on winning a ring before retirement and notoriously reluctant to provide on-the-job training to newbies. No one was surprised that Dieng logged a measly 205 minutes before the All-Star break.
But in February of that season, Pekovic, surprise surprise, was injured. Ditto backup center Ronny Turiaf. Dieng made the most of this opening, pushing his way into the starting lineup for the final 15 games of the season. He was named Western Conference Rookie of the Month for March and continued improving through 9 April contests, averaging 12 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks in 31 minutes per game. Despite logging only 818 minutes overall, he was named to the All NBA Rookie 2nd Team.
All that hubbub earned Dieng another spot on the second unit heading into his second season. Pekovic was back to claim the center position and Turiaf was retained to compete with Dieng as the backup. The Eyes on the Rise marketing campaign had featured a pair of power forwards in Thaddeus Young and Anthony Bennett and the plum of the Love trade, Andrew Wiggins, was justifiably hogging most of the hype.
Three months later I wrote a column, “The Indomitable Gorgui Dieng,” claiming that “a case can be made that Dieng has been the Wolves most valuable performer during this first half of the season.”
Yep, Pek had gotten hurt. Tanking reigned amid a welter of other injuries, roster shuffles, and flamboyant growing pains. One of the eye-rolling mileposts, if not the coup de grâce, of the team’s belly flop was when Dieng was shelved for the final nine games after being smashed in the face by teammate Adreian Payne in the scrum beneath the hoop (an unfortunate harbinger, and metaphor, of Payne’s ongoing impact on the Wolves). In the train wreck of the season, Dieng finished third on the team in steals, second in minutes, and first in rebounds, blocks and win shares.
Flash forward to October 2015 and the gush was on for top overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns, the starting center, to be mentored on the court by starting power forward Kevin Garnett, with Euroleague MVP Nemanja Bjelica the backup to KG and thus the starter on the rear end of back-to-back games on the schedule. Dieng was slated to receive Towns’ leftovers, at least until Pek returned sometime in January.
And so it went for a while. Dieng spent the majority of his court time with teammates who were anathema to his style of play. At his best, Gorgui is a grease-and-glue guy; someone simultaneously able to grease the flow and glue the seams of teamwork with his limited but well-rounded skill set, resilient work ethic and unselfish attitude. But in an effort to foster a formidable defensive identity among his starters and provide the direct mentorship of veterans Garnett, Rubio and Tayshaun Prince to cornerstones Towns and Wiggins, Mitchell transformed the subs into an insufferable grab-bag of me-first gunners whose only motivation for playing defense was returning the ball — the source of shots — to their clammy hands.
Kevin Martin, Zach LaVine and Shabazz Muhammad were the primary remorseless chuckers. Bjelica or Payne rounded out the quintet to ensure that after the swingmen allowed dribble penetration, the front court would be powerless to stop them.
You know what happens, next, right? Pek returned in January, played a dozen disastrous games and was dinged up enough to go back on the shelf. Those who had Garnett down for 38 games and 556 minutes for the 2015-16 season get to call bingo, and Bjelica and Payne have been mostly unmitigated toxic teammates in totally different ways.
Dieng entered the starting lineup for good on January 27, or 22 games ago. Since that time he has averaged 13.8 points per game on 58 percent shooting, while remaining the fourth or fifth scoring option among the starters. He has grabbed 8.7 rebounds, doled out 2.5 assists while turning the ball over just 1.6 times per game, blocked 1.5 shots and played the team’s best pick-and-roll defense this side of Kevin Garnett.
But Dieng’s best argument for remaining an integral part of this organization going forward is his “net rating,” the difference between how the Wolves fare when he is on the court versus when he takes a seat and lets another player try to fill his role. Currently it stands at +5.7 points per 100 possessions, the third-best on the team behind Garnett (+11.3) and Rubio (+10.4).
Even that lofty perch undersells his value, ignoring all the time he toiled with the misfits while Garnett and Rubio were synergizing with each other. The player with the worst net rating among the top ten in minutes played, Bazzy Muhammad, has been paired most often with LaVine and then Dieng. The player with the second-worst net rating, LaVine, has been paired the most with Dieng.
What this means is that Dieng got stuck with “point guard LaVine,” an inordinate amount of time, which necessarily means less time spent with Rubio. And because he plays the same position as Garnett, he got the benefit of KG’s excellence less often than anyone else in the top 10. Yet still he is third in net rating.
The ceiling and the future
The bottom line is that Dieng has exceeded expectations every one of his three NBA seasons. Unless he is a burgeoning All Star cleverly camouflaged as a grease-and-glue grinder, this is not a sustainable pattern. With contract negotiations on the horizon, the Wolves have to appreciate his genuine value, appropriately gauge its ceiling, and proceed accordingly.
Here’s the tough part for the indomitable Mr. Dieng: He has done a pretty fabulous job of maximizing his contributions, meaning there isn’t that much wiggle room left for growth spurts.
Dieng entered the NBA off a national championship with Louisville with a reputation as a staunch defender with limited offense. He has razed the “limited offense” end of that equation with remarkable elevations in his true shooting percentage, going from a decent 53.4 percent as a rookie to a solid 57.3 percent last season, up to a snazzy 60.4 percent thus far this year. He has become a deadly midrange shooter from 10-16 feet out, and finishes well on the shots he gets off near the hoop. His free throw percentage, currently 82.4, is a delightful bonus — there will be no hack-a-Dieng happening anytime soon.
But, unless and until he becomes a reliable shot-maker from three-point territory, it is hard to imagine Dieng getting too far above 60 percent true-shooting. And the time it takes him to wind up and let fly with his shot makes three-pointers less likely.
His rate of blocks and rebounds is actually down slightly this season compared to his first two years, but that is mostly a function of him playing less center and more power forward. On the other hand, it is again difficult to see any of blocks-assists-rebounds taking a leap forward.
The biggest improvement is Dieng’s game this season is clearly defense, especially pick-and-roll defense. Ironically, while Garnett has dedicated himself to improving Towns, Gorgui is the one who seems to have learned the tricky balance of show-and-sell-and-recover when negotiating the pick-and-roll coverage. In my column on Dieng last season, the late Flip Saunders is quoted as saying that Dieng tries to do too much; to gamble and over-help, on the defensive end. That deficit has been mostly erased under the example of Garnett and the coaching of Mitchell, who absolutely loves him — and appropriately so, as Dieng is one of Mitchell’s success stories this year.
But the primary way for Dieng to take another major step forward on defense is to vastly improve his lower-body strength. He is better at on-ball defense in the paint this season — last year it was his Achilles’ heel — but the Wolves are still regularly manhandled beneath the hoop with a Towns-Dieng frontcourt.
Finally, Dieng lacks the super-athleticism that is so often an X-factor in stardom. His movements are not fluid, his reactions are not lightning-quick. His mind, his “basketball IQ,” is of greater virtue than his 6-11, 240-pound physique.
So how does all this play out? Well, if the Wolves are smart, they will wait until Dieng becomes a restricted free agent, and, unless they have unearthed a cheaper and/or better option for the rotation, match the exorbitant bid that a hungry contender is likely to pay for a capable 8th or 9th man in the rotation for a versatile, team-oriented big man who can be an emergency starter when necessary. A team in a situation analogous to the current Clippers, for example, would pay dearly for that type of player.
Meanwhile, let’s take a moment to appreciate what Dieng has wrought out of his NBA career. In the miserable churn of the Timberwolves past three seasons, no other player has kept his head down, worked assiduously, and climbed another rung on the ladder with such painstaking progress.
Yes, the ceiling is limited, maybe even a bit cramped for the penthouse expectations of this franchise moving forward. But while we wait for that not-unpleasant potential reality to arrive, let’s appreciate the present.
Let’s stop underestimating Gorgui Dieng and give him his due. Make it a fan’s bonus on a salary that currently pays him $1.5 million this season and $2.4 million next year. A pittance for quality grease and glue.