In the center of it all: Wolves big men show life in loss

Gorgui Dieng (left) had 14 points and 15 rebounds for the Timberwolves (7-35) in Friday night's loss to New Orleans.

Stacy Bengs/AP

MINNEAPOLIS — During the Timberwolves’ 25-plus seasons of existence, they haven’t been treated to a glut of high-level centers.

There’s some name recognition at the position. Randy Breuer commands respect, but his jersey number’s being retired in the Williams Arena rafters, not those of the Target Center, on Saturday. Luc Longley spent three years here, too, but his best work came on those decent mid-90s Bulls teams with some guy named Michael.

Felton Spencer was an above-average rebounder and defender. Dean Garrett had his moments. So did Rasho Nesterovic.

But the Wolves are a product of the NBA and its evolution; the great centers are few and far between, and many of them played during a different era when brutality won more basketball games.

There’s potential then, for Gorgui Dieng and Nikola Pekovic to assert themselves at the top of Minnesota’s all-time centers list, albeit a short one. The two of them even shared the floor for much of the second half in Friday’s 92-84 loss to the Pelicans.

"It’s easier," Dieng said, "because (Pekovic) will have all the attention when he’s on the court. I will help him get the ball better and find open areas."

The dummied-down, "going-big" lineup coach and president of basketball operations Flip Saunders deployed Friday in the Wolves’ (7-35) 10th straight home loss — tied for the third worst home skid in club history — was merely a visual of the organization’s potential riches at center. Having a traditional, bang-’em-and-board big man like Pekovic is rare enough, but when he’s part of a one-two punch that features a rim protector like Dieng (who’s also improving daily on offense), that’s a luxury Minnesota’s never had.

"Potential" remains the buzzword here, though. If Pekovic were able to stay healthy and Dieng continues to progress at his current rate, the two best fives in club history could be playing on the same team.

And sometimes, alongside each other.

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"That’s one of the reasons that we signed Pek," Saunders said, "and it’s one of the reasons we drafted Gorgui."

When he’s in the lineup, Pekovic is a virtually insurmountable load. The 6-foot-11, 290-pound Montenegrin averages 15.7 points on 53.2 percent shooting and 8.3 rebounds since the start of the 2011-12 season.

When he’s in the lineup.

Thanks to a series of nagging injuries, Pekovic’s missed at least 17 games in each of his five NBA seasons, including 31 this year with wrist and ankle issues.

"Things just start, like, coming one-by-one, just jumping out of the closet," said Pekovic, who had 13 points and nine rebounds Friday in his second game back. "You’ve got this, now it’s this, now it’s this."

But since Pekovic’s ankle bursitis that derailed his season last year, Dieng’s proven almost as effective an option.

His late surge then earned him all-rookie second-team honors. This year, Dieng is averaging 9.9 points, 8.2 rebounds (20th in the NBA) and 1.8 blocks (eighth) per game.

"I’m just trying to get better," Dieng said, "trying to be the best I can."

Excluding Al Jefferson, who’s more of a power forward, Dieng and Pekovic’s scoring and rebounding averages after their rookie seasons top the best career numbers in franchise history.

And Dieng’s just getting started. Pekovic, on the other hand, could go in the history book as wasted opportunity if he continues to miss large chunks of time.

"They’re both quality players," said Saunders, whose team fell for a second time against New Orleans (22-21) in front of 14,978 fans Friday. "The biggest thing is we’re going to maybe be able to play them together some. That’s the biggest thing. We’ll have to work on it over time."

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