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The Curious Case of Gorgui Dieng

Diving into the backup center’s season so far.

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NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Sacramento Kings Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

Coming into what has turned out to be a drama-filled, up-and-down, whirlwind of a season, Gorgui Dieng looked like he would be the odd man out in Minnesota. With the additions of Derrick Rose — who had played well in his late-season and playoff stint with the team — Anthony Tolliver, and first-round pick Josh Okogie to help solidify what was a formerly unwatchable bench brigade, The Senegalese giant was one of the few who didn’t offer much end product.

It was obvious in the eyes of the fans, and apparently it was obvious to Tom Thibodeau, who was the head coach and president of basketball operations at the time. With Jimmy Butler’s infamous trade request, multiple deals hinged (and failed) on the premise that teams receiving Butler take on the 29-year-old center. According to Kelly Iko of The Athletic, the Timberwolves front office were ‘hell-bent’ on shipping out Dieng.

Sure, teams like Miami or Houston could give him a fresh start and perhaps even rotational minutes, but nobody in their right mind was absorbing the final three years of the 4-year, $64 million dollar deal that he inked back in 2017, at least not without a first-round pick as an incentive. After a 2017-18 season where he averaged 5.9 points, 4.6 rebounds and 0.5 blocks per game, there was simply not enough promise left in his game to warrant taking back his money. And Minnesota, who was in limbo and about to lose their best player, were in no position to be giving up future assets.

Alas, Robert Covington, Dario Saric and Jerryd Bayless eventually replaced the disgruntled Butler, and Dieng remained in the place he has called home for the last five years. Despite his immediate future being confirmed, he’s remained as the one part of Minnesota’s improved bench that struggles to impact the game in a consistently positive way. So far, Dieng’s numbers are down across the board, putting up his lowest per-game minute, point, and rebound totals since his rookie season.

The Timberwolves started off the season miserably, as they battled through the Jimmy Buckets drama and the general soreness that came with it. One encouraging sign that came in that dark time was Dieng’s play. In the eight games he played in the opening month of the season, the G-Train averaged 8.1 points and 5 rebounds per game in just under 15 minutes a night, all while shooting a crisp 53.5 percent from the field.

Dieng was running the floor with the intensity of a man who wanted to prove his doubters wrong, hitting his favorite mid-range jumper, and competing strongly enough on defense and the glass to keep opposing big men honest. He was probably never going to live up to his hefty contract, but Dieng was making a solid case to feature prominently off the pine.

Just when it seemed the demons of last season had finally been exorcised, they reared their ugly head again. And it has been far from pretty. In the 39 games since his hot start, Dieng has averaged just 4.7 points, 3.7 rebounds and 0.6 blocks in his 13.2 minutes per game. In his last 10 games in particular, those numbers have plummeted again. He has registered just 3.4 points and 4.1 rebounds on 41.4 percent from the field.

All the things that were making him palatable again seem to have disintegrated. His pick-and-roll defense has been shoddy and out of sync, and he rarely blocks shots anymore like he did when he averaged 1.7 per game in 2014-15. In the 10-game stretch, he is posting an atrocious 114 defensive rating. His 106 rating for the season isn’t the worst number, but he does rank 62nd out of 67 centers in ESPN’s defensive real plus/minus (DRPM) metric.

Defensive mishaps like the one in the clip below have become common place for Dieng. As Paul George gets his shoulder past a mismatched Taj Gibson, Dieng is stuck in no man’s land. There is no reason he can’t leave Steven Adams — who doesn’t shoot from outside the restricted area — alone to come and try disrupt PG13’s layup. Instead he chooses to just watch, guarding nobody but the Chesapeake Energy Arena oxygen in the process:

Unfortunately, Dieng’s troubles haven’t been limited to the defensive end of the floor. In fact, that might be the end that he has played his best. On the offensive side of the floor, he has been either a flurry of misplaced jumpers or simply invisible.

He lacks any version of a post game, and rarely rolls hard enough of pick-and-roll play to get himself easy looks around the rim. The result of those deficiencies is Dieng spotting up in the dreaded ‘long-two’ mid-range area, which is universally known as the least efficient shot in basketball.

He is often left alone and dared to shoot those shots by opposing coaches, and he hardly ever responds by making them pay consistently. The 6-foot-11 center shoots just 41.7 percent on mid-range attempts, which is nowhere near high enough to justify his infatuation with them.

Plays like this are particularly infuriating for Wolves fans:

After hanging on to a handy pocket pass from Jerryd Bayless that gave him a lane to the cup, the typical big man would simply stroll into an easy bucket. Not Dieng though, instead of using the acres of space Phoenix Suns big man Quincy Acy allows him, he inexplicably pulls up for his patented slow-release jumper (which gives Acy ample time to recover). The results mimic the process, and the shot clangs off the back of the rim.

When the big man was playing with confidence at the start of the season, he was taking that ball all the way to the hole in that scenario. Now, with his ego drained, Dieng is relying on the warm comfort of his jump shot. Which would be fine if they are going in, but they’re not. If he wants to find some consistency on offense again, he will need to throw out the premeditated jumper and start playing off his instinct.

A curious player, Dieng earned his contract back in 2017. He was averaging 10 points and 8 rebounds as a starting power forward, and at age 27, he looked like he had at least a few years left in the tank. Now, the Timberwolves couldn’t pay someone to take that deal off their hands, and Dieng himself floats in and out of games like an icy Minneapolis breeze.

Perhaps it is time for Ryan Saunders to start using Taj Gibson, Dario Saric, Anthony Tolliver and Luol Deng to eat up his reserve center’s minutes. Because right now, that feeling before the season that he was the odd man out on a budding bench has come to fruition.