Wolves Thursday: Dieng brings swagger to Minnesota’s frontcourt

Since entering the starting lineup in the wake of injuries to Nikola Pekovic and Ronny Turiaf, Timberwolves rookie Gorgui Dieng is shooting 59.2 percent and averaging 12.7 points and 14 rebounds per game.

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MINNEAPOLIS — Fairly reserved on the exterior, Gorgui Dieng gives off the impression of a quiet rookie going humbly about his Yeoman’s business.

"I’m nothing compared to this basketball team," Dieng said Wednesday after posting his fifth double-double in six starts.

But the Timberwolves teammates that have spent this season growing close to him know better. Beneath the "I’m just here to work" statements and gritty clear-outs on rebounds lies a confidence fueling the rookie’s surprising, late-season surge.

They even have a distinct term for it.

"He’s got a little swag to him," point guard J.J. Barea said. "He thinks he’s really good, so that’s gonna take him far."

Said fellow veteran Corey Brewer: "J.J.’s right — (Dieng) feels like he can do it, and he goes out there and battles. I like the swag."

So does a Minnesota team that’ll take any sign of hope for the future after falling out of the playoff race. Since entering the starting lineup in the wake of injuries to Nikola Pekovic and Ronny Turiaf, the Timberwolves’ only healthy center is shooting 59.2 percent and averaging 12.7 points and 14 rebounds per game.

A week ago in Houston, Dieng became the first rookie in franchise history to notch 20 or more points and 20-plus rebounds in a game. Wednesday, he had 15 points and 15 boards.

His approach is simple: he’s here to rebound, alter shots and score on a limited basis — either via putback or when he has a favorable matchup in the post. "I’m not the first option on this team — (or) second, the third or fourth," Dieng said. "I only score when somebody misses a shot, or, if they struggle, I can score on the block."

But the 6-foot-11, 238-pound Louisville product has come a long way from the kid who would enter for short stints and immediately find foul trouble and struggle around the rim.

He’s more confident. More . . . swaggy, as Brewer and Barea would put it.

Good luck getting coach Rick Adelman to use the same description. But the 23rd-year head man doesn’t disagree with them.

"The more he’s played these last few games, the more calm he is offensively," Adelman said Wednesday after his team’s 107-83 thrashing of Atlanta. "To me, he’s got a little bit of confidence, and he knows what he can do."

Shabazz says ‘no comment’: Even as he wraps up his rookie season with the Timberwolves, trouble continues to follow Shabazz Muhammad and his father, Ron Holmes.

The latest bout of controversy came Wednesday, a day before Holmes’ sentencing in U.S. District Court in Las Vegas for conspiracy to commit fraud. It’s been learned Holmes took out a loan estimated at $350,000 based on Muhammad’s projected NBA salary — a violation of NCAA rules.

Muhammad declined comment following Minnesota’s practice on Thursday afternoon at the Target Center.

But, according to the Los Angeles Times, Muhammad did request leniency from the judge in a 1 1/2-page letter. "My dad is an integral part in my life and I need him very much in it," Muhammad wrote. "I know for a fact my dad is most happy about me becoming a professional basketball player because of the opportunity to help myself and others."

It’s unclear whether Muhammad knew about the loan or not.

The findings in the case won’t directly affect the rookie small forward or the Timberwolves. But they are the latest in a string of incidents involving Muhammad, his father or both men.

Holmes pleaded guilty in December to conspiracy to commit fraud after being accused of using straw buyers and false information for home purchases and has been on house arrest in Las Vegas since late May. In 2000, he was convicted of mortgage fraud in Los Angeles County and spent six months on house arrest.

The NCAA ruled Muhammad ineligible for the first three games of his freshman season after finding he’d received expenses from a family friend to pay for two unofficial recruiting visits to other schools. It was also confirmed he’d given UCLA a falsified age and was actually a year older than listed.

After earning first-team All-Pac-12 honors and leading the Bruins to the NCAA tournament, Muhammad was drafted 14th overall and signed a two-year rookie deal with Minnesota for $3.86 million. He was kicked out of the league’s rookie program in August for bringing a woman to his room but has kept his nose out of trouble since then.

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Muhammad averages 7.9 minutes, 3.6 points and 1.5 rebounds in 32 games played this season.

Hairy situation: Ricky Rubio picked an interesting time to challenge Kevin Love to a facial hair contest.

The two Timberwolves stars decided before Wednesday’s game they’d grow out their already-notable mustaches and see whose looked better.

"I think I’m gonna win," Rubio said.

But in the first quarter of Wednesday’s game, the Spanish point guard tried to take a charge from Mike Scott and wound up with a split upper lip. He left the floor bleeding and kicked a chair on his way out but returned in the second period and finished with 10 assists.

At least a grown-out mustache might distract from the 15 stitches sticking out of his upper lip.

"He’s gonna be follicly challenged here for a while," Love quipped. "Hopefully that heals up quick for him. He won’t have to wear a mask or anything; he’s just not gonna be as pretty as he usually is, I guess."

Former Timberwolves tip off: Those with a special interest in Timberwolves franchise lore will want to tune into Iowa State and Connecticut’s Sweet 16 matchup Friday.

The NCAA tournament contest features a former Minnesota player — albeit a short-tenured one — on each opposing sideline. Cyclones head coach Fred Hoiberg closed out his NBA career with the Timberwolves, while Huskies head man Kevin Ollie spent the 2008-09 campaign in the Twin Cities.

Ollie played one more season, with Oklahoma City, in 2009-10 before retiring. Hoiberg, though, stuck around for four years after a heart operation effectively ended his playing career. After wearing the black and blue from 2003-05, he spent three seasons as Minnesota’s assistant general manager and one as vice president of basketball operations.

Iowa State and UConn tip off at 6:27 p.m. Friday on TBS.

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