The misconstrued career of the Timberwolves’ Gorgui Dieng

To preface the silent dissipitation of Gorgui Dieng’s career, a personal story will have to be told for the sake of empathy.

Beginning when I was ten and continuing up till now, making it a tradition of sorts, on the Thursday of the first week of June my father and I make the journey from our adopted foreign land of North Carolina, back home to Minnesota.

Upon arriving at MSP, we are quick to rent a car, escaping from my father’s hometown of Minneapolis only to drive three hours northwest to a town of 3,000 named Perham. Like most rural Minnesota towns, Perham doesn’t have much to see, its main attractions being the Veterans Museum and the drive-thru Subway, a site unbeknown to Raleigh.

It is here, in this distress of civilization, where we find a two-room cabin, situated 50 feet in front of Lake Marion. The proprietor of the cabins, a man journeyed in the course of life, runs a cozy restaurant and bar in the main lodge, with a single, 24×24 inch box TV in a small crevice cut in the northernmost wall of the building.

The cabin, void of wi-fi and cable, was unsuitable for NBA Finals watching, so for each game of the NBA Finals, my father and I walked the 200-yard trail down to the lodge and situated ourselves in seats 22 and 20 feet away from the TV, respectively.

I would order a pizza, my father a Coke, and we would watch the match unfold before our eyes. In the first two quarters, we were accompanied by a trove of viewers, but as the night and the game went on, those numbers diminished until only four remained: myself, my father, the proprietor, and a semi-drunk beer-guzzler that had his back towards the bar and his front towards the TV.

My father and the beer-guzzler exchanged jokes deriding LeBron James and his move to Miami, and you can imagine the mood when the buzzer sounded, declaring the Mavericks victors of game five and putting them in the driver’s seat for the rest of the series. Some of us filled with exuberance, others, with Miller Lite, decided to continue conversing about the game and the NBA in general long after the game’s culmination.

As any good Minnesota Boy, I was fluent in both Timberwolves and Vikings history, yet in regards to the rest of the NBA, I knew about as much as the common fan. The conversation continued deep into the night, and the beer-guzzler, who at this point must have had a BAC of at least 0.75, made a statement declaring LeBron to be the only superstar ever to have to change teams to win a title, but I was quick to point out that Shaq had followed a similar path for his rings.

The proprietor, a quiet yet wise man, showed me a soft smile at that statement, and impressed with my iota of basketball knowledge I had accrued to that point, he got out of his chair, and struggled to the opposite side of the room, where he took an autographed, black and white picture of a tall, slender man off the wall.

Returning to the table where we were, he sat himself down and asked me, “You know who that is, son?” I responded with a somewhat firm “no,” accompanied by a head shake, the international signal of refutation. The man smiled and looking back towards the picture, said “That’s George Mikan. Star of the Minneapolis Lakers. I was around your age when my own father took me to see him in person. What made that man great wasn’t God-given talent. It was hard work. He was born in Illinois, but he was a son of Minnesota at heart. Remember that.”

I took particular note of this lesson, and as I have progressed in years, I have noticed this trend play out. Do not be deceived by the high-rises and skyscrapers of Minneapolis and St. Paul; at its roots, Minnesota is a blue-collar state, filled with farmers and hard-workers who are content with the living they make.

It is this same attitude of relentless work and perseverance which we as Minnesotans look for in our heroes, and endear them so much to us. In my limited scope of Vikings fandom, my favorite player isn’t the flashy Percy Harvin or the walking highlight-reel that was Adrian Peterson–it is Chad Greenway.

Chad turned a single division one scholarship out of high school into a decade-long career, which will be forgotten by all fans outside of Minnesota. At no single point in his career was Greenway the best player on the Vikings defense, or the best-selling jersey, but within him was something much more valuable–heart.

Until the age of 31, Greenway didn’t miss a single game, and his level of play never faltered. He wasn’t supremely talented or athletic, but each and every Sunday he left everything he had out on the field and continued with the Vikings through the highs and the lows and the very lows (looking at you Joe Webb), never once complaining.

Gorgui Dieng’s misunderstood career:

It was those same attributes that attracted me to Gorgui Dieng in his college career and brought me incalculable amounts of joy and excitement when the Timberwolves traded for him. He fulfilled even my highest expectations in the first three years of his NBA career, earning himself a well-deserved 4-year, $64 million extension. Yet, now, in the first season of this new contract, one year removed of starting all 82 games, it is critiqued as one of the worst contracts in the NBA, as he is putting up just six points and five rebounds in just 17 minutes of playing time per game.

So, what happened?

One of only 10 NBA players to ever come out of Senegal, and undeniably the best, Gorgui Dieng has fought an uphill battle his whole life just for a chance in the NBA.

At 19, after showing promise in his basketball potential, Dieng was selected as one of just 60 players to attend the South African “Basketball Without Borders” Camp, where his tenacity earned him MVP honors, gaining him international recognition. He committed to Louisville, to which the NCAA promptly responded by declaring him ineligible, citing his failure to graduate high school on time. He fought this and eventually won, but despite this triumph off the court, he struggled on the court his freshman year, seeing 18 minutes a game and putting up relatively low numbers.

He continued to work incredibly hard on his game, and under the provision of one of college basketball’s most historic programs, he saw both his scoring and rebounding totals increase the following two years. In 2013, coming off a 10 points and nine rebounds per game season, he declared for the NBA Draft, where the Jazz took him at No. 21, hastily thereafter shipping him off to Minnesota for Trey Burke.

The first three years of his NBA career were similar to those of his college trajectory. He steadily increased his point and rebounding totals, which was compensated with an uptick in minutes.

Gorgui quickly became a fan favorite, and in response to his production and popularity, at the end of his third season, a season in which he averaged 10.1 points to go along with 7.1 rebounds, he was handed his monster 4-year, $64 million extension and the role of starting power forward.

The following season, despite heightened expectations, his level of play regressed slightly, as he slightly increased his scoring and rebounding totals, with the asterisk being that he decreased in efficiency. This regression came as no shock to any close follower of the NBA, as when any player jumps from a bench role to a starting capacity, a modicum of relapse is probable.

Yet, in a season where he was supposed to revert back to his pattern of progression, to offer both depth and a dominant big-man to a Timberwolves team in the midst of a playoff surge, he has flailed.

Dieng’s lack of minutes doesn’t equate to poor play

Due in part to the durability of Taj Gibson and Karl-Anthony Towns, Gorgui has not started a single game this year, a first for his career, but has still maintained to make an appearance in 75 of the Timberwolves’ 78 games thus far. In the games he’s played, Dieng has struggled mightily, putting up just 5.9 points and grabbing a career-low 4.5 rebounds all on a sub-55 percent true shooting percentage.

Rebounds haven’t been his only career low this season. Among his career lows this season are his blocks per game, his Value over Replacement-Player (VORP), his Win Shares per 48 Minutes (WS/48), his Box Plus-Minus (BPM), and his Player Efficiency Rating (PER), not to mention a plethora of other below-average marks relative to the rest of his career.

In addition, this year, Gorgui Dieng has a Real Plus-Minus of -3.04, the 53rd mark among centers with over 200 minutes. His lineup data tells the same story. Wolves’ lineups with Gorgui Dieng are among the worst in the entire league, with an average net rating of -6.35.

For Gorgui, the eye test doesn’t fare much better. He generally looks lost on both sides of the ball, even absent on times, and often it isn’t until he picks up a foul that I even notice he’s on the floor. Take a look at the clip below (I apologize in advance for my atrocious film-editing abilities):

In just five minutes worth of game film, I was able to compile these four plays which embody his play this season. Each defensive possession, Dieng seems to be a step late, lacking both explosion and instinct, while on offense, he merely stands in a corner acting as an offensive functionary, making no effort to initiate.

On the rare occasion in which he sets a screen or cuts to the basket, it is often done half-heartedly, lacking energy and any real purpose. Herein lies the root of his problem, the point of contagion which has festered his statistical production this year.

In the past, what made Gorgui such a valuable bench piece and what gave him the appearance of a $16 million man was this unrivaled energy he infused into the game, energy which propelled his net rating over the last three years to be on average 1.83 points higher than that of his team.

What are we to make of Dieng’s future in the NBA?

He was never a superb athlete, but even as recent as last year, one could make the argument that he was an elite rim defender and competent on the other side of the ball. Yet, this year, he rarely puts up a valiant effort on the defensive side of the ball, and when he does he appears to have lost all his defensive intuition, either fouling or proving to be hardly a barrier for rim penetrators.

So what is this severe slide attributed to? Is it laziness or lack of effort? Perhaps it is just an anomaly. Perhaps, at just 28 years of age, the prime years of his career have already passed him by.

Yet, perhaps, it is something deeper. How can a man who has worked so hard, so relentlessly his entire life, see his life’s work dwindle before his own eyes? How can a man who has never taken no for an answer, a man who has overcome barriers us first-world citizens cannot even fathom, suddenly settle to reside in the realms of mediocrity? This cannot be so. The NBA community can continue to ridicule Gorgui for his play, deride the contract he was given just one year ago, but I will not.

The analytical side of me, my predominant side, wants to write Gorgui Dieng off, declare him unfit for his contract, and possibly the NBA, and begin the stage of regret, a feeling Minnesota sports fans know all too well. The statistics urge me to declare the best years of his life to be behind him, to declare that time, the unstoppable force, has ultimately taken the best away from Gorgui Dieng, and our memory of him will be a competent five on an eternally rebuilding Timberwolves team who undeservedly received loads of money.

But there is a danger in reducing a person’s entire identity to a set of numbers. What differentiates us from animals, what makes us humans, is that we have heart.

Animals are instinctual, they have programmed responses to programmed situations. Humans, we have this inexplicable, invaluable asset, emotion, heart, which are capable of transcending science. Our willpower transcends statistics.

Over the course of my young life as a Minnesota sports fan, I have seen utter collapses on par with that of the Roman Empire, I have seen chokes that are WWE-worthy, I have shed tears to fill the great lakes. From the objective standpoint, what will this culminate to? At best from it will proceed fleeting joy, which will last for a moment before the shock of the real world set back in.

But it is this inexplicable, unwavering devotion to a cause without reward which makes me human. It is this blind faith that there is good to come, this foolish anticipation of that one moment which pushes me back to the Vikings and Timberwolves, season after season. Faith is all I have left.

Let’s believe in the power of heart, the power of willpower, and that Gorgui Dieng has both of these attributes instilled within him. Hoping that Gorgui will revert back to his prior glory, I trust that he will live up to his contract. Without citing any numbers to support this claim, nor citing support from any expert’s opinion to support this claim, not even citing the eye test as support for the claim.

So here we are, destitute, lacking any tangible evidence, finding evidence in what as a Minnesota sports fan has failed me for so long–faith.

This article is getting up in word count, so alas, Gorgui,  “What [makes you great isn’t] God-given talent. It’s hard work.” You were born in Senegal, but you’re a Minnesota boy at heart.

Make Minnesota proud.