Wolves' trio of big men set on locking down lane
MINNEAPOLIS -- Whether he's bodying up against Nikola Pekovic on the block or listening to one of Ronny Turiaf's life lessons, Gorgui Dieng sports the demeanor of an intense basketball student, his face rarely exuding any emotion other than focus.
But ask him about the rigors of those preseason trench battles with Big Pek, and the rookie center breaks into a wide, boyish smile.
"Pek like contact," he beamed simply after a recent practice.
A hodge-podge of international accents and varying duties will man the post for the Timberwolves this season. Pekovic, Turiaf and Dieng all grew up thousands of miles away from the Twin Cities. Each left home at a young age to pursue his hoop aspirations.
Coming from southern Europe, western Africa and the Carribean, they've converged in the Target Center paint this season carrying clearly-defined sets of expectations. Each big man's duties are different, yet intertwined.
"It's good, it's good," Pekovic said before the team boarded a plane for its final two preseason games Wednesday and Thursday. "We can push each other in the practice, and I think they can give us some great minutes in the game."
Pekovic's the unquestioned returning starter that ultimately will decide whether Minnesota's 2013-14 post presence is formidable or liable. The 6-foot-11, 290-pound Montenegrin began playing professionally in the Serbian Superleague at the age of 18 and burst onto the NBA scene in 2011-12, breaking Kevin Garnett's mark for single-season shooting percentage and leading the league in offensive rebounds per 48 minutes.
His production -- a team-high 16.3 points per game and career-high 8.8 rebounds per game -- became even more pronounced last season with Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio and several other core players missing substantial time due to injury. So Minnesota went after Pekovic hard in restricted free agency and eventually re-signed him to a five-year, $60 million deal.
President of basketball operations Flip Saunders also drafted Dieng and signed Turiaf as an unrestricted free agent to push Pekovic and make up for his defensive deficiencies.
They've done both in camp, Pekovic said, but he is actually more relaxed this year than last season. A max deal in hand helps, but so does knowing he's got his big-man buddies and Love and Rubio healthy again to help carry the weight.
"With Ricky out, with Kevin out, all these players hurt, I got a lot way more responsibility than this year," Pekovic said. "I'll still try to do all the stuff I was doing before, try to do my part of the job."
Dieng's job, in turn, is to learn. A native of Senegal who moved to West Virginia for his senior year of high school, he's still raw after four years under Rick Pitino's Louisville tutelage. Dieng played the game for only three years before signing with the Cardinals.
But the 21st overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft can play as well as he soaks up knowledge, Turiaf said.
"He's somebody that has a high basketball IQ, somebody who's willing to do whatever he has to do to help the team win," Turiaf said of Dieng. "Like I told him when I first saw him, he has the potential to be great. It's up to him to do the work that it takes to get better, and I think he's willing to do that."
Dieng won't just warm the bench. He can block shots and score with his back to the basket against less beefy centers, the likes of which are becoming more commonplace in today's NBA.
The same description befits Turiaf, a ninth-year journeyman who averages 16.8 minutes and 4.7 points per game. After growing up on the Carribean, French-territory island of Martinique, he left home at the age of 15 to play high school basketball in Paris, starred at Gonzaga then spent his first three years of pro hoops with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Stints with six NBA teams render the 30-year-old a valuable locker room leader, a gig he wholeheartedly embraces.
Especially when it comes to Pekovic , 27, and Dieng, 23.
"I feel like this team has a chance to be great and there's a couple guys here -- they're young guys -- that I already told them that they have the chance, so if they want to go get it, they can go get it, because I got paid already so I'm good," Turiaf said to a chorus of laughter at the team's media day before camp commenced. "You guys are laughing; I'm serious, I got paid already, so this is not for money. This is to satisfy my desire to make something special happen."
To do that, he and Dieng must fulfill their reputations as sturdy rim protectors. Pekovic can score and rebound with the best of them but has averaged less than two blocked shots per 48 minutes in each of his first three years in the NBA.
Turiaf's 3.5 blocks per 48 ranks fifth in the league during his professional tenure, and Dieng averaged 2.5 per game for Louisville last season.
"We just here to help," Deing said. "I think we are known to be slapping shots away and play better defense so you know, listen to the coach and try to be in the right spot, and learn how to get better."
Adelman has used Dieng the least of the trio through four preseason games, giving Pekovic time to readjust to playing with Rubio, Love and new shooting guard Kevin Martin while Turiaf gels with the second unit. The coach said he'll rotate players more frequently Wednesday in Philadelphia and Thursday in Detroit, meaning Dieng -- who's appeared in two exhibitions for a total of 37 minutes -- is in line for some more court time.
Minnesota also is expected to waive center Chris Johnson in the coming days. He has appeared in one game for only three minutes.
Even without him, Adelman said he's comfortable with the center situation moving into next Wednesday's season opener.
"I think it's good for us," Adelman said. "It gives us a lot of depth. I think it helps Pek in practice, because they're gonna battle him, and they're gonna push him.
"We're in pretty good shape there."
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