Prior to Sunday evening’s victory over the Sacramento Kings, Wolves’ rookie center Gorgui Dieng’s career-high in minutes played was a 22 minutes showing in a blowout victory over the Utah Jazz on February 22. Most of those minutes were of the garbage variety, and he had only reached double-digits in minutes a handful of other times all season.
News came down on Sunday afternoon that Nikola Pekovic’s sore, bursitis-y ankle had flared up during the loss in Charlotte on Friday night, and he would be unavailable. Backup center Ronny Turiaf is just now beginning to do on-court work in his recovery from a bone bruise in his knee. In Pekovic’s stead earlier this season, Dante Cunningham received a handful of starts at power forward while Turiaf was also out, sliding Kevin Love over to the center spot.
On Sunday, however, coach Rick Adelman chose to go with Dieng. Originally, the expectation was for Kings’ star center DeMarcus Cousins to play, and Adelman wanted to counter with a seven-footer of his own in Dieng. Shortly after finding out that Pek was a no-go, however, we learned that Cousins would also sit out with a sudden bout of knee tendinitis.
Adelman stuck with Dieng, however, and he was rewarded. Dieng logged a career-high in minutes (37), with ease, and also tallied career-highs in points (12), rebounds (11), and blocks (5). Perhaps even more encouraging, not to mention shocking, was the mark of only two personal fouls in his whopping 37 minutes of play.
But the activity and defensive positioning were quite possibly the most impressive aspects of Dieng’s performance. In his limited minutes this year (and his college career at Louisville, for that matter), Dieng has displayed never-ending energy and hustle, a willingness to take charges and dive on the floor, and a nose for the ball, even if it’s simply tipping a rebound out to a teammate or getting a hand in the passing lane.
Against the Kings, however, Dieng was able to sustain this energy for a yeoman-like 37 minutes, and couple the energy with actual, tangible, effectiveness on the defensive end of the floor. The recognition, speed, and accuracy with which he played help-defense was fantastic. His knowledge of the Kings’ personnel was also vital. Check out the screenshot below (Ignore the play button. It isn’t a video. Just a cheap-looking screenshot.):
Dieng understood that the player with the ball, Rudy Gay, is generally a reluctant passer when driving to the basket, and even more importantly, he knew that his man, Aaron Gray, is an absolute non-threat to score. Gorgui planted himself beneath the rim, one step from helping out Love’s help defense after Brewer was (again) beaten like a drum off the dribble, and remained one step from recovering to Gray in the off-chance that Gay dumped the ball off to him.
Perhaps the most impressive display of help-defense from Dieng was on the following play. On a high screen-and-roll, Dieng was switched onto the 6′ 3″ Ray McCallum at the top of the key. He correctly switched back to his big, but Barea got stuck on the backside of McCallum as he began his drive to the hoop. Dieng deftly checked his own man, while forcing McCallum away from the center of the paint and towards his teammate, Cunningham.
Of course, Dieng was also just a half-step away from swatting McCallum shot back into him, which was exactly what he did.
Two more of Dieng’s blocks were actually on-ball rejections of the hyper-athletic Rudy Gay after being switched onto him. Impressive, indeed.
Just as impressive was Dieng’s general activity, including his work on the boards. Seriously, take five minutes and watch all 11 of Dieng’s rebounds from Sunday on his NBA profile page. There were a few big-time, rebounds in traffic, which certainly includes the game-clincher when the Kings were intentionally missing the free throw and gunning for the rebound with three seconds left on the clock.
Dieng’s overall activity and hustle is very, very important for the Wolves, and clearly had a positive impact on Sunday’s game. It isn’t a blind hustle, get-after-it-ness that Corey Brewer displays with reckless abandon, but a generally purposeful and usually effective brand of hustle.
Dieng is rarely out of place or out of his element on defense; Brewer often is. Brewer constantly gambles for steals and is beaten off the dribble; Dieng seems to refuse the temptation to gamble for blocks. There have been multiple times this season that he has been a split second late on a block attempt because he was keeping his body in recoverable help-position. That’s exactly how to be an effective rim-protector.
Here’s hoping Dieng sees the majority of minutes at center in Pekovic and Turiaf’s likely continued absence. With the Wolves out of the hunt for a playoff spot, brass needs to see what Love looks like next to a true rim protector. Stretches of Love-Cunningham are fine, but the heavy minutes should be given to a Dieng-Love pairing.
Against the Mavericks on Wednesday, expect to see a lot of Dieng again. With Monta Ellis driving into the paint with regularity and seven-footer Samuel Dalembert manning the paint for Dallas, the Wolves’ rookie big man should see another 30+ minute performance. He’ll need to avoid foul trouble again, but if he does, look for another strong showing. Dieng is a good player in the making, and Adelman needs to allow him the opportunity to play alongside Love and the rest of the starters for an extended period of time and on a regular basis.