Wolves’ Dieng happy with play, but Saunders says young center ‘really tired’

Gorgui Dieng has played in all 62 of Minnesota's games this season and is averaging 9.3 points, 8.5 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per contest.

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MINNEAPOLIS — There’s a bit more slouch in Gorgui Dieng’s gait lately, a little less of the playful enthusiasm and emotional reaction to officials’ calls he mixes with a phlegmatic disposition around the Target Center.

The second-year Timberwolves center isn’t down on himself. By all accounts, he’s had a stabile sort of sophomore season, playing in all 62 of Minnesota’s games and averaging 9.3 points on 49.2 percent shooting, 8.5 rebounds (19th in the NBA) and 1.6 blocks (16th) per contest.

"I’m happy where I’m at right now," Dieng said.

He’s not down on his 14-48 team, either. Not when he joins Andrew Wiggins, Shabazz Muhammad, Adreian Payne and Zach LaVine among a young, promising core.

"We all got here at the same time, so it’s good to have all these young guys here," said Dieng, 25, the oldest of the bunch.

No, what’s ailing Dieng lately is more subtle, yet simple.

He’s exhausted, his coach says.

"It’s almost like he hit a wall a little bit," Flip Saunders said. "He’s really tired. He hasn’t been able to sleep at night, he’s been so tired."

That’ll come with playing 29.1 minutes per game amid scarce rest. The fatigue dates back even further, Dieng says — he played on Minnesota’s summer league team in July, represented Senegal in the FIBA World Cup starting in August, and reported for training camp with the rest of the Wolves in October. He didn’t get much of an All-Star break, either, participating in the Rising Stars Challenge alongside Wiggins, LaVine and Muhammad.

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That’s virtually seven months straight of intensive basketball games and training.

"I’m trying to get as much out of me as I can," said Dieng, who at this point a year ago provided little more than a brief spell for starting center Nikola Pekovic. "I’m just trying to find a way to go through it. . . . I do a lot of the recovery things, but I think I’ll be fine."

The minutes load comes as a byproduct of Pekovic’s penchant for injury. With the big Montenegrin missing 32 more games this year, Dieng has started 39 and at times been the only healthy center on the roster.

That’s a big reason why Saunders claimed center Justin Hamilton off waivers last week.

It was Pekovic’s ankle injury down the stretch last season that opened the door for Dieng. A year ago Tuesday, Dieng had played in 40 games and averaged 1.7 points, 2.4 rebounds and 0.6 blocks in 6.5 minutes per game. But from March 16 on (18 games), he shot 52.8 percent, scored 12 points per game, pulled down 11.3 boards a contest and played his way onto the NBA’s all-rookie second team.

He picked up where he left off this year, vindicating Saunders’ decision to trade No. 9 overall pick Trey Burke for Dieng and Muhammad — who averaged 13.5 points per game before a season-ending finger injury this season — in the 2013 draft. Jazz big man Rudy Gobert is the only player from that draft class with a better Hollinger player efficiency rating (21.44) than Dieng (17.40) this year.

"I think I’d just like to get better every year, and I think I’m getting better, improving," Dieng said. "I still can work on my game, and it will grow every year."

But Saunders is seeing more and more signs of wear on film. It usually occurs on defense — rotating slower, not recognizing and executing coverages as quickly.

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So continued durability and increased stamina will be main facets of Dieng’s long-term development. So is adding some more muscle to his 6-foot-11, 245-pound frame so he can better finish at the rim, Saunders said.

Dieng makes nearly half his shots, but he’s shooting 45.5 percent from close to the right side of the basket and 22.7 on intermediate paint attempts, according to Vorped. When a defender is within two feet of him, Dieng is shooting just 38.5 percent from the field.

"He gets a lot of shots blocked around the basket where you think he gets it, you’re ready to stand up out of your chair and cheer for a dunk, and all of a sudden, it gets blocked and you sink back down in your chair," Saunders said. "He’s just got to get a little bit more explosive around the basket . . . and a little bit more finesse getting the ball up on the glass a little bit quicker."

Dieng’s No. 1 goal after this season: "Just confirm that I can play in this league," he said.

"I think I’ve got a chance to get better," the always-confident Louisville product said. "Hopefully, I can be a great basketball player in this league."

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