The Timberwolves have a core of stars and future stars, but one consistent role player will be key to the Wolves making the playoffs for the first time in 14 years.
First-round picks Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns have been the focal point of the Minnesota Timberwolves franchise the past two seasons — until they traded for Jimmy Butler this and signed Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson, that is.
With Butler, Teague, Wiggins, and Towns on the roster, people don’t see the Wolves as pups anymore. The revamped team is expected to make the playoffs in 2017 for the first time since the 2003-2004 season, the longest playoff drought in the NBA.
Should the Timberwolves break their playoff woes and play as expected this coming season, the acquisitions of Butler and Teague will be at the forefront of the conversation as the reason why. However, one player in particular has been a crucial piece of the Minnesota puzzle and has been overlooked due to his ultra-athletic teammates: Gorgui Dieng.
Dieng has been a Timberwolf his entire career and has played in 82 games the past two seasons alongside Wiggins and Towns. He started all 82 games for the first time in his career last season and showed what he is capable of when given a full workload. No, Dieng is not an elite talent such as Towns, but it is the little things he does that makes all the difference for the team.
Rather than commanding the ball in the low post and trying to score 20-plus points a game, Dieng filled his role perfectly last season, averaging 10 points, 7.9 rebounds, 1.2 blocks and 1.1 steals per game. He did all of this while playing in 32.4 minutes per contest, tying him with LaMarcus Aldridge for the seventh-most minutes among power forwards.
Another surprising statistic is that Dieng ranked 11th in double-doubles at the power forward position over the course of the season, putting him ahead of players who receive much more recognition, including Kristaps Porzingis, Serge Ibaka, Dirk Nowitzki and his new competition at power forward, Taj Gibson. Dieng also fell just one spot behind Aldridge for seventh in the league in blocks per game.
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When casual fans hear the name Dieng, they say, “Who?” They should be saying, “Oh, the guy who plays like LaMarcus Aldridge.” This statement isn’t just a reflection of statistics, but also a comparison of playing styles.
Aldridge is widely regarded as one of the best power forwards in the league, and rightfully so. He has the ability to create his own shot, he can rebound, spread the floor and commands double teams in the post. While Aldridge’s post presence is superior to Dieng’s, Gorgui isn’t one of the centerpieces of his team’s offense like Aldridge. Last season, Dieng shot 50.2 percent from the floor while Aldridge shot 47.7 percent.
Both shoot very few three-pointers; Aldridge averaged 0.8 attempts per game last season, while Dieng averaged 0.5 per game. Aldridge has the leg-up in three-point percentage, shooting 47.7 percent behind the arc, while Dieng shot 37.2 percent.
If you analyze Aldridge and Dieng stats over the course of their first four seasons in the league they are eerily similar. Aldridge started just 22 games of the 63 he played in his rookie season while Dieng started 15 games of the 60 in which he played. Aldridge became a full-time starter after that, while it took Dieng until year four to become a full-time starter. However, Dieng played in all 82 games last season, while Aldridge has yet to play a full 82-game schedule in his career.
Both players are excellent free throw shooters with Dieng ranking fifth at 81.4 percent among power forwards in 2016-2017 and Aldridge just behind him at 81.2 ranked sixth. In Aldridge’s first season of being a full-time starter, his rebounds per game rose from five to 7.6, an increase on 2.6 rebounds per game. Last season was Dieng’s first as a full-time starter, and his rebounds rose from five his rookie season to 7.9, an increase of 2.9 rebounds per contest. Aldridge averaged 0.9 steals per game in year four, while Dieng averaged 1.1.
The number comparisons make some wonder what Dieng could be if he was more involved in the offense, but in the modern day NBA, if you’re not an All-Star, you have to play a complementary role. Look at Klay Thompson, capable of posting over 30 points in a single quarter, but yet he has games where he scores single digits. Just as Klay sacrifices his talents for Steph, KD and even Draymond, he accepts his role because he knows it makes the team better. This is exactly what Dieng does, but he doesn’t receive the recognition of a Klay Thompson because he is in the trenches putting in the dirty work, not making the flashy highlight plays like the guards.
In football, the skill position players receive all the credit, when in all reality without the lineman blocking for them, they wouldn’t have the opportunities to do what they do. The same goes for post players in the three-point shooting crazed NBA.
Without guys like Dieng putting in the dirty work up front where it matters, none of the Timberwolves off-season acquisitions would mean a thing.