Gorgui Dieng’s need for more minutes


The Minnesota Timberwolves’ PR team loves its mottos that allude to the team’s promising young core in any derivation. Eyes on the Rise, Rising Wolves, etc. — we’ve heard them all. One important member of that core, who is seemingly ancient comparatively, is 25-year-old Gorgui Dieng.

Dieng got a late start in basketball in the United States because he grew up in Senegal. He didn’t start college until he was 20, and despite forgoing his final season of eligibility at Louisville, entered the NBA draft at the ripe-old age of 23.

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Gorgui wasn’t given an opportunity to prove himself during his rookie year until mid-March. Of the 818 minutes he played that season, 545 came in the team’s final 18 games, an average of over 30 per night. In those 18 contests, Dieng scored 12 PPG while grabbing 11.3 boards and swatting 1.5 shots per game.

Gorgui’s best statistical performance came against the Houston Rockets on March 30: he scored 22 points and had 21 rebounds. Despite not being given much of a chance all year, Dieng’s late-season effort was enough to land him on the NBA All-Rookie second team.

Now in his sophomore season, Gorgui has played well. He is currently averaging 9.5 points and 8.6 rebounds to the tune of a solid 18.1 Player Efficiency Rating (a metric used to measure a player’s “per-minute productivity“). For reference, a PER of 18.0 suggests a player should be a solid second option on a given team, while a PER of 20.0 suggests a player is a borderline All-Star.

Dieng seems to grow more confident and comfortable the more responsibility he is given. The more minutes he plays, the better he typically performs. Both sides of this coin have been on display this season.

The season began with incumbent starter Nikola Pekovic figuring to see most of the action at center, with Dieng giving Pek a breather and playing 15-25 minutes a game. Unfortunately for Minnesota, its injury-prone $60MM man went down nine games into the season and missed the next two months. Dieng was thrust into the starting lineup and played admirably.

During those 2+ months, Dieng averaged 11.8 points and 10.9 rebounds per 36 minutes while shooting 49.1% from the floor, according to NBAwowy.com — solid contributions from a player still considered very raw.

Gorgui started from the time of Pekovic’s injury until January 30. Since then, he has played 20 minutes or fewer in 3 out of 9 games. To put that in perspective, Dieng hadn’t played 20 minutes or fewer in a game since December 1 against the Clippers. For a young player, especially a long-term developmental project like Dieng, to see such a dramatic flux in his minutes can throw him out of his rhythm.

Jan 21, 2015; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves center Gorgui Dieng (5) drives to the basket against Dallas Mavericks center Tyson Chandler (6) and forward Dirk Nowitzki (41) in the third quarter at Target Center. The Mavericks win 98-75. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

In these three games Dieng was held to 1-12 shooting for 8 points and only managed 8 boards in 49 total minutes. Contrast that with the game against the Suns last Friday in which Dieng played 38 minutes due to the Thaddeus Young trade and Anthony Bennett‘s twisted ankle: he scored 15 points on 6-8 shooting and grabbed 12 boards. Yes, it is a small sample size, but when you look at the body of work of the entire season, Dieng has been more effective and equally as efficient when given more minutes.

Consider the following from Basketball-Reference.com which, among many other things, breaks down individual players’ splits based on ranges of minutes played: 10-19 minutes, 20-29, 30-39, and 40+. I am throwing out 40+ here because Dieng has only played more than 40 minutes one time this season. Of the three ranges, Gorgui’s offensive rating (points produced per 100 possessions) is lowest at 10-19 — a meager 105.

Just as I would have predicted, Gorgui’s offensive rating at 20-29 and 30-39 minutes is much higher at 121 and 113, respectively. Dieng has also shot the ball better when playing 20-some and 30-some minutes, at 53.2% and 49%, respectively, while shooting just 43.2% when playing 10-19 minutes.

Another reason Dieng needs more minutes is because he’s the closest thing the Wolves have to a rim protector. His defensive prowess has yet to fully reveal itself in the NBA, but Gorgui was an outstanding defender in college.

Ever since trading defensive stalwart Kevin Love last summer

The Wolves haven’t had a rim protector for as long as I can remember — probably since Kevin Garnett first donned their colors.

Management has always been searching for that imposing defensive presence under the rim. Dieng has the best chance of developing into that of any big on the roster right now, and Flip Saunders can’t bank on landing Karl-Anthony Towns in the draft. The only way Dieng will become that guy is if he gets more minutes, makes his mistakes, and learns from them.

I am in no way arguing that Dieng should start in place of Pekovic. That is absurd given the enormity of Pek’s contract. What I’m saying is that Dieng needs to play 25-35 minutes a night whether he starts at the 4 or spells Adreian Payne and Pek.

With Pekovic’s susceptibility to injury and the sudden lack of front court depth, Flip should make it a priority to give Gorgui big minutes every night. If the Wolves are going to become contenders, they need to give each of their youngsters a real chance — especially those that have earned it like Dieng.

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