MINNEAPOLIS — Maybe when his basketball career’s over, Gorgui Dieng can work his way into the world of international relations.
Respectful, regal, looks good in a suit, knows five different languages — heck, the newest center to join the Minnesota Timberwolves already looks like he could be Senegal’s ambassador to the United States.
But for now, Dieng’s focused on a much simpler, albeit less noble, profession.
Blocking shots and dunking basketballs.
“I believe in winning,” he bluntly but passionately closed his introductory statement to media and fans with last Friday.
The Timberwolves acquired Dieng in a draft-and-trade exchange with the Utah Jazz, picking him 21st overall. President of basketball operations Flip Saunders set out this offseason in search of a quintessential rim protector, one that could back up Nikola Pekovic (assuming the restricted free agent re-signs) and make the NBA’s best slashers think twice before penetrating.
And though Dieng wasn’t on anyone’s list to land in Minneapolis — he never worked out with the Timberwolves — he was on Saunders’ radar the entire time.
“He has an NBA skill,” Saunders said, “and that skill is he can guard.”
Dieng defended well enough in his junior season at Louisville to earn Big East defensive player of the year honors on the way to snagging a national championship ring. Making full use of his 7-4 wingspan, he swatted 267 shots during his career, good for second on the Cardinals’ all-time chart, and averaged 2.5 blocks per game last season.
He also became more comfortable with the ball in his hands, developing a short jumper and elbow passing skills to go along with his superb rebounding ability (9.4 boards per game in 2012-13).
His final collegiate season sure looked a lot different than the first, when he failed to grasp the concepts that goaltending is illegal, offensive fouls count toward fouling out, and when your team falls in the NCAA tournament, your season’s over.
But those are the kind of adjustments that come with an African native who played basketball for only three years before college.
“I think somebody is going to get very lucky with a special basketball player with tremendous growth,” Cardinals coach Rick Pitino told WDRB, a television station in Louisville, Ky., before the draft.
One of eight children, Dieng was born on January 18, 1990, in Kébémer Department, Senegal. He’s a product of the NBA’s efforts to the grow the game overseas, having attended the Sports for Education and Economic Development Academy in Thies, Senegal, and later excelling at the “Basketball Without Borders” clinic in South Africa, where the 60 top players on the continent are invited.
The quiet, shy, dark-skinned kid that didn’t know a lick of English moved to West Virginia for his senior year of high school, starring at Huntington Prep before deciding upon Louisville.
He wasn’t cleared to play until two weeks before his freshman season after reports surfaced he’d been ruled academically ineligible by the NCAA. Louisville won its appeal in the case, and Dieng didn’t miss any time.
He’s come quite far since then.
“Coach Pitino said he’s one of the best players he had, and here’s a guy who’s only played ball for five or six years,” Saunders said. “He’s aggressive. He knows how to defending pick-and-rolls. He knows how to defend inside.”
In his native language, Wolof, Dieng’s first name means “the old one.” At the ripe age of 23, he’s an elder statesmen by collegiate first-round draft pick standards. He speaks with maturity to match.
“When I step on the court, I just got a job,” Dieng said. “I will do whatever it takes to make my team look good. I will try and get the job done. “
Earning a starting salary of about $1.1 million, Dieng should have the chance to learn behind Pekovic and add some muscle to his gangly, 245-pound frame. There’s a good chance the Timberwolves will waive center Greg Stiemsma’s $2.5 million salary before it becomes guaranteed July 17, freeing up more minutes for Dieng as well.
He can’t wait to make the most of them, he said.
“I don’t care what the outcome is going to be,” Dieng said. “I will play with effort.”