Wolves’ Gorgui Dieng a work in progress, but already strong defender
MINNEAPOLIS — Gorgui Dieng was the last Timberwolves player to exit the team’s pregame shootaround Wednesday.
Before leaving the Target Center floor, the rookie center engaged in a lengthy discussion surrounded by general manager Milt Newton and assistant coaches Terry Porter, T.R. Dunn, David Adelman and Jack Sikma. Their emphasis during the type of conversation that’s become commonplace in Dieng’s young, as-yet undefined career: be hungry, but stay patient.
"That’s one thing they all say the same — just be patient, and your time will come," Dieng said. "(Starting center Nikola Pekovic) always telling me he didn’t play his first year, his second year he barely played. I’m just gonna be patient. I’ve got a lot of good bigs in front of me."
Wait, watch and learn quickly became the mantra for the No. 21 pick in the 2013 NBA Draft. Even after second-string big man Ronny Turiaf went down with an elbow fracture in the second game of the season, opening the door for Dieng to receive more minutes than previously expected, patience became even more imperative.
Some nights, Dieng hears coach Rick Adelman call his name early — generally in the second quarter along with a wave of second-unit substitutions.
Others, he doesn’t leave the bench.
"He’s done alright," said Adelman, whose team improved to 13-13 with a win Wednesday against Portland. "He’s young, and a lot of times, he doesnât get a chance to play that much. We’re gonna bring him along. It’s just really hard when you’re trying to scrape out wins here and there to play a young guy."
So far, Dieng has appeared in 14 games, averaging 6.4 minutes, 1.6 points and 2.2 rebounds. His only real contributions, though, have come in the category he was most known for coming out of Louisville.
Despite his limited playing time, the long, 6-foot-11 big man averages nearly one blocked shot per game. That’s a good sign for a team whose primary post men — Pekovic, Kevin Love and, in certain situations, Dante Cunningham and Luc Mbah a Moute — aren’t very effective at protecting the rim.
"I always tell (my teammates), ‘When you got beat, donât foul,’" said Dieng, a native of Senegal. "’Just stay straight. I will come and clean it up.’ Even if I don’t block it, I’m gonna make sure I alternate a shot or make it difficult or he gonna see me."
But that mentality also brings a tendency to foul, particularly for a rookie who’s still adjusting to the speed of the NBA and isn’t going to get much benefit of doubt from officials. Although he has yet to play more than 15 minutes in any contest, Dieng has been whistled on two or more occasions in six separate games.
He’s told not to worry about it; he isn’t likely to stay on the floor long enough to commit all six he’s allowed.
Besides president of basketball operations Flip Saunders, Newton and Minnesota’s coaching staff, Pekovic’s voice is an influential one in reinforcing such guidance. Pekovic went through similar adjustments his rookie year, when he played just 13.6 minutes per game and averaged 5.5 points and three rebounds.
Dieng may never be the dominant post scorer his Montenegrin mentor can be, but there’s a place for him if he continues to steadily progress, Pekovic said.
"I just kind of see me, because he’s going through everything that I was doing my first year," Pekovic said. "You can always improve yourself, and when he get chance, when he gets some playing time, he just needs to be more calm in the game. That’s what I told him at first: ‘Don’t try to do everything. You can’t do everything.’"
An accurate but not high-volume shooter in college, Dieng still has plenty of room for growth offensively. Continued real-life reps will help.
"I have to find ways to get him in the game," said Adelman, who added that Dieng is "by far" the team’s best rim defender. "He alters shots in there. Offensively, you’ve got to score points at the other end."
One other aid for Dieng is his ongoing one-on-one rivalry with reserve veteran A.J. Price. Frequently before or after workouts, the two will square off head-to-head and can usually be heard bantering back and forth about it afterward.
It not only tests Dieng’s foot skills and simulates game situations where a smaller guard attacks the basket but also unites him with a dues-paying journeyman who has found ways to barely crack 15-man rosters almost every year of his five-year career.
During their battles, that feistiness can sometimes negate Dieng’s nine-inch height advantage.
"I know he’s so competitive," Dieng said of Price. "He gonna help me sharpen my skills defensively to make sure I take out a guard and slide my feet."
Just 26 games into his professional career, Dieng will remain a work in progress. But the flashes he has already shown exhibit promise. According to point guard J.J. Barea, the second unit’s de facto leader, Dieng just needs more and more game experience.
The more it adds up, watch out, Barea said.
"I like him," Barea said. "I think he’s our best defender at the rim. Over the year, I think he’s gonna play a little bit more and get better. But I think we need him if we want to be good."
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