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The Other Center: A Gorgui Dieng Preview

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After being known strictly as a center, Gorgui Dieng has paired with KAT to form a positionless front court. What does it mean for the big man going forward?

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Nikola Pekovic, Karl-Anthony Towns, Gorgui Dieng, Jordan Hill, Kevin Garnett, Nemanja Bjelica, Adreian Payne and Cole Aldrich are all listed at 6’10” or taller and they all have guaranteed contracts on the Minnesota Timberwolves this season.

Height and positional distinction don’t always perfectly correlate, but using more than half of the 15-man roster on players who can loosely be described as bigs creates some confusion about what Tom Thibodeau’s front court rotation will look like.

The safest assumption, of course, is that Karl-Anthony Towns will be playing at least the 32 minutes per game he played last year. While Towns is traditionally thought of as a center, he has both the interior and perimeter prowess to play either front court spot.

That distinction will come in large part not from Towns, but rather the other big on the floor alongside him. Last season that big was most frequently Gorgui Dieng, and we should feel confident that Dieng will be eating up many of the available minutes again this year.

Two years before drafting both their center and centerpiece of the future, Towns, the Wolves selected Gorgui Dieng, a center from Louisville with the 21st overall pick. DraftExpress had this to say about Gorgui Dieng the NBA prospect;

"Dieng's intrigue as an NBA prospect starts with his prototypical size and length for the center position. Standing 6'11 with a 7'4+ wingspan… Considering his size, athleticism, defensive ability, and effort level, the Senegal-born center is one of easier prospects to pencil into an immediate role… Possessing many of the tools necessary to find early minutes as a backup center.” -Matt Kamalsky DraftExpress

Dieng entered the league as a center prospect. And he has exceeded the expectations of a “backup center”. If we were re-drafting the 2013 NBA Draft, Dieng would likely be a top-10 pick. Dieng is up for and will receive a massive contract extension the market indicates he deserves, either before or after this season.

Yet Dieng’s shine appears to have faded among some elements of the fan base, despite his obvious improvement last season.

We question a future with Dieng in large part because we wonder if we need different skills next to the guy we are expecting to be the anchor of the team for the foreseeable future. After two years of knowing Dieng almost exclusively as a center, alongside a smaller big, we question Dieng’s fit alongside Towns. These questions of style have led us to ask: How good is Gorgui Dieng, actually?

And that’s because although we recognize things have kind of worked out with Dieng, it hasn’t always been pretty...

He has a jump shot that can be better compared to a slow-action catapult than a shooting stroke. Dieng is emblematic of the guy you see warming up before a pick-up game and go, “nah, i ain’t closin’ out on that dude.” And then boom, at game-point, said catapult-er, mysteriously launches from the bald spot on his head... And it’s game over.

Yes, that is a comparison of Gorgui Dieng to a man in his mid-40s at Lifetime Fitness. The point is, Dieng, to most, is simply not an aesthetically pleasing player, at least on the offensive end.

A pump fake (resulting in a travel call with disturbing frequency) or a jump hook are offensive staples for Dieng. And, yes, his running form is gangly and just weird. It’s as if there is a weight attached to the front of his sternum. Very few of Dieng’s moves will ever be viewed as athletically acrobatic, and he will likely continue to have a propensity for the accidental circus shot (that won’t always go in.)

But, if we can get over the fact that Dieng shoots and runs in a peculiar fashion, we can begin to accept that he has been an effective big man for most of his three seasons in the NBA. Particularly last season.

Dieng The Shooter

True Shooting Percentage (TS%) evaluates a players ability to shoot two-point field goals, three-point field goals and free throws, weighting accordingly for the worth of each shot. Amongst the 38 centers who played starter or close to starter minutes last season (1500 minutes), Dieng was tenth in the NBA in TS% (60.1%.)

That’s higher than Towns, Chris Bosh, DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis. And while those players also carried much higher usage rates and a much bigger offensive burden, Dieng’s efficiency when he did attempt to score was a positive for a Wolves offense that clicked into gear after the All-Star break.

Further, a low usage second big is okay on this iteration of the Minnesota Timberwolves. With a core of scorers like Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach Lavine, a guy who is efficient with his opportunities but doesn’t command a lot of attempts is a good thing up front next to Towns.

Wiggins has always been a volume shooter, but Towns and Lavine will only be shooting more as they grow. A low usage and efficient second big could be exactly what fits here.

In the shot attempts he did take last season, Dieng began to show more and more craft on the block.

He is a threat over each shoulder and from that Dieng has shown a propensity to effectively “dream shake” in the post and jump through to create space, and finish with length as he does here over Brook Lopez.

The pairing with Towns allows Dieng to take more time with his back to the basket as the secondary big defender has to respect Towns’s threat to shoot and/or dive to the basket. Again, you see this with Brook Lopez’s late rotation and ineffective contest on Dieng’s shot attempt.

Dieng also showed an ability to create for himself from the elbow. Defenders have begun to respect Dieng’s mid-range shot and Dieng uses that to his advantage developing an effective up-fake, bringing the defender off their feet. Dieng may not be quick off the bounce but effectively uses a “speed” dribble into a less contested shot, as he does here against (a devastated) Pau Gasol.

If the defender does wait back for the drive, as Jared Sullinger does below, Dieng makes 44.1% of his jump shots in the 15-19 foot range. The league average is 40.2% from that distance.

Yes, in today’s game many teams are featuring bigs who can stretch out to the three-point line. That isn’t and likely never will be a major tool of Dieng’s. His stand still jump shot is slow and therefore more easily contested.

Even if Dieng only shoots 20 three-pointers again this year he can effectively exist as a low-post and elbow shot creator when needed. Especially when paired alongside the stretchier Towns.

Dieng The Passer

In part due to Dieng’s below average speed, he often takes his time to not only get a shot off but also time in assessing the defense. Dieng has developed a serviceable level of court vision in the early stages of his career. This became especially clear after seeing consistent time in the starting lineup with Towns.

Once Garnett went on sabbatical, playing his last game of the season at the end of January, Dieng became the second starting big. At that point of the season the Timberwolves began further featuring the post players. Both Dieng and Towns saw an increase in the percentage of possessions in which they were taking a shot.

The Timberwolves began to feature the double high-post action that we see here in a February 6th matchup against the Chicago Bulls.

This by no means a “next-level” pass by Dieng, but he is patient. Dieng is a player who waits for the play to develop, rather than immediately firing off a shot or putting his head down and attacking the basket.

Due to Dieng’s ability to knock down a jump shot he isn’t guarded in the same manner in which other centers are defended away from the basket, which gives him opportunities to play-make that others don’t have. He took advantage: Only 14 players listed as centers had a 10%+ assist percentage in 800+ minutes played last season. (Aside: The Wolves now employ three of them: Dieng, Towns, and Cole Aldrich.)

Out of the high post, Dieng began to be put in the pick and roll more frequently. When Dieng would pop, he would have the option to shoot or pass. In the clip below, Dieng finds the player he initially screened for, Shabazz Muhammad, as Bazz is able to find a pretty high percentage shot on the cut.

What we can feel most confident about with Dieng as the second big is there seems to be no player Dieng feels more comfortable finding for a bucket than Towns. Nearly a third of the time Dieng passed to Towns, Towns converted the pass for a bucket.

It can and should be anticipated this is something Thibodeau will look to capitalize on. In both 2013-14 and 2014-15 when Thibodeau coached Joakim Noah in Chicago, Noah led the league in assists for centers by a landslide (5.5 assists per 36 minutes).

It’s not unlikely that the combination of playing a full season alongside Towns and Thibodeau’s presence on the bench will lead to a huge uptick in assists for Deing this season.

Even more important than the raw assist statistic is Dieng’s ability to be a patient big man passer. This year he can and will likely develop a further rapport with not only the other big men, but also Lavine, Wiggins and Brandon Rush on the perimeter.

Dieng The Defender

On what was a poor defensive Timberwolves team in 2015-16, Gorgui Dieng was, at times, a bright spot on the defensive end. But in certain aspects of defense Dieng remains a liability.

Watching the Wolves last season we remember a litany of weak-side defensive rotations that led to Dieng rejections.

Dieng also showcased an ability to be the big who is able to switch onto a smaller and faster player. Here against the Spurs we see Dieng switch onto Jonathan Simmons. Dieng takes the shorter angle to the baseline, and when Simmons opts to not use the rim for protection on the reverse, Dieng is there to pin the shot attempt.

Of the 38 Center/Forwards who played 1500+ minutes, Dieng stacked up positively in a few individual defensive metrics:

Steal Percentage- 5th best

Block Percentage- 19th best

Defensive Box Plus/Minus- 9th best

Only Nerlens Noel had both a higher Steal and Block Percentage than Dieng last season. Dieng appears to play defense with long arms and active hands, creating steals and blocking shots at a rate that suggest an above average defender.

But Dieng has weaknesses on this end. He has perpetually been bullied throughout his career by other bigs who simply are stronger and weigh more than he does. However, last season, Dieng did improve some of the fundamentals of his defensive positioning.

Against low-post behemoth, Enes Kanter, Dieng does a good job of staying chest-to-chest without losing ground. Here, when Kanter makes his move, Dieng has kept his hands high and therefore able to quickly react, blocking the shot attempt.

Many defenders use an arm-bar when guarding a stronger player. On this play, had Dieng’s arms been lower in an arm-bar, Kanter’s spin would have likely been too quick to have contested it.

Despite improvements, Dieng remains a below-average on-ball defender. When Dieng was guarding a player less than ten feet away from the hoop, the players field-goal percentage increased by 3% from their season average. Moving closer to the basket (less than 6 feet) Dieng continues to hurt the defense.

Dieng will always be slight in frame. His length will be his ticket to effective post defense, not his brute strength. He is not that player. The good news is that prior to being inserted into the starting lineup alongside Towns, Dieng always would draw the opposing teams biggest player, which only exacerbated his weaknesses.

Having Towns and Dieng on the court together leaves room for different defensive schemes in the post. Neither player will take the job of exclusively guarding the Demarcus Cousins’ or Andre Drummonds of the league.

This ride-share of sorts will greatly benefit Dieng. Before the all-star break, when Dieng largely backed up Towns, the Timberwolves had a negative Net Rating (Offensive Rating - Defensive Rating) when Dieng was on the court. After the all-star break, when Dieng began starting consistently alongside Towns, Dieng’s Net Rating continually improved. February: 3.3 , March: 7.1 , April: 7.5.

Dieng’s plus/minus as a starter, with Towns, was 2.3. While coming off the bench his plus/minus was -2.2. Of course, playing with the starters can and will improve a players Net Rating.

The point is, the positive uptick is most distinguishable when Dieng shares the floor specifically with Towns. Even in the 488 minutes Dieng played with Towns prior to the all-star break, before Dieng was starting, Dieng’s plus/minus was 0.6. That was his best plus/minus with any one other player during that time frame.

Gorgui Dieng The Starting Power Forward

There are eight players who will compete for minutes at either the power forward or center position this season. That many guys inevitably creates confusion about how the rotation is going to shake out.

Rather than getting caught up in the confusion, however, we can look forward to Karl-Anthony Towns and Gorgui Dieng filling a large portion of the void. They played 61.5% of the minutes at the power forward and center spots last season, and, barring injury, should be available for more if necessary this year.

That’s a great place to start, and we can see the depth behind those two as a real positive. Even if Pekovic and Garnett are unable to play, and Payne is still Payne, Aldrich, Bjelica, and Hill give Thibs options for different looks along side the two main big men.

There are questions, certainly: Does Shabazz Muhammad get any run at the four? Can Cole Aldrich play alongside Towns? Will Adreian Payne get any playing time? Whither Kevin Garnett?

But Gorgui Dieng is not a question. Let’s stop worrying about his positional distinction and realize Dieng can just kind of play ball. A full season of Dieng playing alongside KAT may surprise us in it’s effectiveness. One more time...