This is Part Five in a thirteen-part series that will examine all players currently on the Wolves’ roster that played for the team last season. We’ll be omitting Kevin Love, because…well, you know why.
When Flip Saunders selected Trey Burke with the ninth overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, it was fairly obvious that a trade would be announced in short order.
The Wolves already had Ricky Rubio, and point guards J.J. Barea and Luke Ridnour were both still under contract at the time. Burke was a good prospect, but probably was not going to be sticking in Minnesota long-term.
Sure enough, Saunders flipped Burke to Utah for the #14 and #21 picks. It later leaked that he was targeting Gonzaga center Kelly Olynyk with the #14 selection; it was even clear pre-draft that Wolves’ brass liked him a great deal. Danny Ainge and the Celtics predictably foiled Saunders’ plan by selecting Olynyk at #13, and panic ensued.
A number of reports had leaked suggesting that Shabazz Muhammad had been “red-lined” by Saunders and Co., meaning that he would not be drafted by the Wolves. No. Matter. What.
Whether that report was true or not, Saunders picked the UCLA forward at #14. In a thin draft, it was still far too early to take a chance on a guy that simply did not impress in his one year of college ball while there were a number of more enticing prospects, long-term projects or not, on the board.
At #21, the Wolves nabbed Louisville center Gorgui Dieng. During the Cardinals’ run to the NCAA championship just three months prior, Dieng played a pivotal role for Rick Pitino’s squad. He was a devastating shot-blocker tasked with protecting the paint, and passed the ball deftly from the high post while displaying an intriguing mid-range jumper.
The same summer, the Wolves inked restricted free agent center Nikola Pekovic to a huge contract, in addition to picking up veteran backup center Ronny Turiaf on a two-year pact. Dieng was officially the third-string center, and it looked like he wouldn’t get much playing time at all as a rookie.
In the second game of the year, Turiaf went down with a nasty elbow injury, and Dieng played fourteen shaky minutes in his stead. Even with no true backup center, the rookie accrued eight DNP-CDs from October 30 through the month of November.
And things didn’t change quickly. Dieng was even deactivated for a couple of games in December and January, and it was very hit-and-miss whether or not he got into the games that he was active for. But after a 12-point, 11-rebound, 5-block performance in a 37-minute starting role against the DeMarcus Cousins-less Sacramento Kings on March 16, Dieng was officially unleashed.
He followed that up by notching 10-point, 11-rebound game against Dallas, and officially announced his arrival in the NBA with a 22-point, 21 rebound showing in Houston. Dieng started for much of the rest of the season, and tallied one more 20-plus point game and a separate 20-rebound game. At this point, it’s impossible to ignore the likely fact that Dieng is a legitimate NBA center.
It’s still too early (just 60 games and 15 starts) to know if he’s truly a starting-caliber center, but he’s almost certainly a permanently positive contributer. As Pekovic’s backup, Dieng should see 20 minutes per game as Saunders tries to limit Pek’s playing time in an effort to avoid some of the nagging injuries that have forced the hulking center to miss time over the past few years.
Not only that, Saunders has already alluded to the possibility of a preseason experiment of playing Dieng at the power forward spot alongside Pekovic in an effort to get his two best big men on the court simultaneously. Presumably this would be less necessary if and when the Wolves acquire Thaddeus Young, but it’s an intriguing possibility.
It would provide more of a challenge defensively than on offense, and Dieng isn’t likely to be able to guard a ton of power forwards in today’s NBA, but the offensive synergy could work. Dieng’s ability (and willingness) to shoot and make a mid-range jumper should provide enough spacing for Ricky Rubio and the guards to operate freely. And the offensive rebounding would be fantastic.
At any rate, Saunders will be tasked with finding a way to get the blossoming second-year big man on the floor. It’s a good problem to have, to be sure, but potentially finding minutes for Pekovic, Dieng, and Young while trying to develop Anthony Bennett could be a tall task.
Even though it’s unlikely that Shabazz Muhammad will amount to much more than an energetic, small-ball forward that can hit the glass and drain an open jumper (probably the ninth guy off the bench for a decent team), the drafting of Dieng was a deft, if not obvious move by Saunders.
Look for Gorgui to find 20 to 25 minutes per game of court time this year while Saunders tries to find out if he’s a key trade piece moving forward, or if he truly has a pair of starting centers on his hands, in which case Pekovic could become a legitimate trade candidate.
Either way, it appears as though the Wolves have discovered a plus-contributor with the 21st pick in the draft. And it isn’t every day one can speak positively about the Wolves’ draft history.