This is the sixth in a 14-part series evaluating each Timberwolves player’s performance during the 2013-14 season. Find the entire series here.
In his NBA debut, Timberwolves center Gorgui Dieng played 14 minutes, 25 seconds, went 0-for-1 from the floor and 0-for-4 from the foul stripe, didn’t record a rebound and picked up four personal fouls.
By the end, he’d played himself into serious consideration for NBA all-rookie team consideration.
Arguably the most surprising story during the second half of Minnesota’s season, Dieng settled right into NBA life once afforded a substantial opportunity. Thanks to injuries to top center Nikola Pekovic and veteran backup Ronny Turiaf, Dieng started 15 of the Timberwolves’ final 18 games. And during that stretch, he performed in a manner not at all becoming of a rookie who looked absolutely lost during the first couple months of his professional career.
During Minnesota’s first 64 games, Dieng looked awfully uncomfortable with the basketball in his hands. Before his starting lineup debut March 16, he averaged 1.7 points per game, shot 42.6 percent from the floor and committed almost as many turnovers (21) as he did field-goal attempts (29 makes). But when coach Rick Adelman called upon him March 16 against Sacramento — and every game after that — something clicked. Dieng made 5 of 7 attempts and scored 12 points that night, then two games later went off for 22 points at Houston and became the first rookie in franchise history to tabulate 20 or more points and 20-plus rebounds in the same game. During the final 18 games of the season, he averaged 12 points per game, shot 52.8 percent and had nine double-doubles.
But those double-double nights wouldn’t have come if Dieng hadn’t also figured out to rebound. Rarely in good position and awkwardly exposed by stronger, more experienced post presences, the 6-foot-11, 238-pound Senegal native eclipsed six boards just once before his first career start. But much as he did in the offensive part of his game, Dieng turned confidence into production once he received a starting nod. From March 16 on, he averaged 11.3 rebounds per game — half a board more than Kevin Love, the league’s No. 3 rebounder for the season.
Dieng was drafted 21st overall last summer primarily because he became a proven rim protector during four seasons at Louisville. Heading into the offseason, that’s a commodity the Timberwolves lacked. And while it took Dieng a while to figure out what performing in the NBA is all about, occasional swats of opponents’ shots provided a glimpse into his future as a dynamic defensive presence. He finished the year with 2.9 blocks per 48 minutes, and during his 18-game, campaign-closing tear, he blocked 1.5 shots per contest. His biggest issue, especially early on, was foul trouble; appearing in 42 of the Timberwolves’ first 64 games, Dieng averaged 6.5 minutes and 1.3 personal fouls per game.
It’s a small sample size, but the Timberwolves appear set at center for the foreseeable future thanks to Dieng’s rookie-season improvement and a five-year, $60 million deal signed by Pekovic last summer. What Dieng must now do, though, is prove himself throughout the course an NBA season — not just the campaign’s final month. If Dieng can do that, president of basketball operations Flip Saunders will be lauded for picking up a crucial asset late in the first round.