MINNEAPOLIS — Perhaps the most endearing development as the Timberwolves’ lackluster 2013-14 campaign drew to a close was the sudden emergence of rookie center Gorgui Dieng.
With an opportunity born from injury, Dieng played his way onto the NBA all-rookie second team with a stellar concluding month. The No. 21 overall pick from Louisville averaged 12 points on 52.8 percent shooting and 11.3 rebounds during the season’s final 18 contests, 15 of which he started.
He scored 12 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and blocked five shots March 16 against Sacramento in his first career start, becoming the first NBA player to record 10-plus points, 10 or more rebounds and five or more blocks in his starting-lineup debut since Elden Campbell in 1991. Two games later, Dieng became the fourth rookie in the past 20 years to notch a 20-point, 20-rebound game by scoring 22 points and pulling down 21 boards.
It made it easy to forget the bulk of the season when he looked befuddled at times, overwhelmed at others, and didn’t merit much substantial playing time as a result.
"I think there is a lot of plays last year I couldn’t finish because of my strength," Dieng said recently. "I think I got beat up a lot."
As a result, the 6-foot-11, 238-pound Senegal native is spending most of his offseason in Twin Cities weight rooms, consulting frequently with Wolves staff including newly self-appointed head coach Flip Saunders. Dieng is a frequent inhabitant of the Target Center this summer and can even be seen on occasion grabbing a bite to eat in the City Center skyway across from Minnesota’s home digs.
He spent some time in his home country last month, volunteering for the NBA and U.S. Agency for International Development’s "Live, Learn and Play" program and conducting his own basketball camp in the city of Kemeber, where Dieng grew up before participating in Basketball Without Borders and eventually winning a national championship with Rick Pitino. Dieng even helped build a new basketball court there.
But he sees no better locale than Minneapolis as the next setting for his progression.
"I think it’s good to be here," Dieng said. "People see me a lot, and I know they like me working. I don’t want to go somewhere else . . . . I love playing basketball. I think this is a great area for me to work on my game and to work on my body."
That includes frequent interaction with Saunders, who even last season would take Dieng aside and put him through individual drills.
Adjustment to NBA life took time. Often picking up quick fouls and being bullied at the rim, Dieng averaged 6.5 minutes, 1.7 points and 2.3 rebounds in 42 appearances before his inaugural start March 16. During that time, he picked up 22 healthy did-not-plays.
But once starting center Nikola Pekovic and backup Ronny Turiaf were simultaneously out with injuries, Dieng stepped in and shined. His transformation appeared to happen overnight, but he insists it’s the product of patience and vigorous training behind the scenes.
"I think there was a long time I didn’t get to play, and people didn’t see it, but I wasn’t just sitting on the bench," Dieng said. "I was working on my game and just trying to get ready. When the chance come, I showed people that I was ready to play."
With Pekovic signing a five-year extension last summer and Turiaf under contract for another year, Dieng’s development suddenly renders the five spot a deep position heading into next season.
And that’s crucial, because Pekovic and Turiaf haven’t exactly shown a penchant for durability. Pekovic’s missed at least 17 games in each of his four NBA seasons, and Turiaf sat out 51 games in 2013-14, the fourth time in his nine-year career he’s been absent in 40 or more outings.
The post takes on even more import if Kevin Love isn’t around next season. The idea of playing Dieng alongside Pekovic in a Twin Cities Towers-type scenario has even been bandied about.
But Dieng said his playing time is up to him — not Saunders.
"It’s not like in Flip’s hands who’s going to play or not," Dieng said. "It’s on me right now. I have to be ready and work on my game and be prepared for next season."