Like most of what Tom Thibodeau touched, Timberwolves big man Gorgui Dieng turned to rotten fruit under the former head coach. The Senegalese giant went from starting power forward who had nightly double-double potential to an overpaid and underplayed bench-warmer. One that the new front office would have to move assets just to get off their hands.
To be fair, Thibodeau wasn’t completely to blame for Dieng’s downfall. The 29-year-old’s effort and consistency were sporadic at best and he never truly showed he could be the impact role player he once was. With limited minutes, Dieng simply couldn’t produce enough to warrant having him play heavy minutes. By last season, he hit his playing career’s equivalent of rock bottom, registering just 13.6 minutes per game — the lowest mark since his rookie season.
Even under Thibodeau’s replacement Ryan Saunders, Dieng still couldn’t find any love. He even found himself glued to the bench for five straight games without playing a single minute. Heading into this season, it seemed like it would be more of the same. With Noah Vonleh, Jordan Bell and Naz Reid all arriving to flank the talismanic Karl-Anthony Towns, Dieng looked destined to be the odd man out. When he featured in just six minutes over the first four games, those presumptions seemed like certainties.
Fast forward three months and the script has been completely flipped. Now, Dieng is a critical part of Saunders’ rotation and has been the driving force behind Minnesota’s injury-ridden survival. Over the past seven games, the Timberwolves hold a 4-3 win-lost record, a stark contrast to the 10 straight losses they piled up before that.
In that seven-game span, Dieng is averaging 13.0 points, 9.7 rebounds, 1.4 steals and 1.3 blocks. He is shooting 44.4 percent from the field, making 34.4 percent of the 4.6 3-pointers he launches per night and knocking down 93.3 percent of his free throws. If you remove the dud in the most recent loss against the Memphis Grizzlies where he went just 1-6 from deep, he is hitting 38.5 percent of his triples over that stretch.
Dieng has always been able to round up boards, defend capably in spurts and knock down mid-range jump shots, but he has modernized his game to truly find a niche on both ends. In his seventh NBA season, he is adhering to coach Ryan Saunders and president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas’ system and splashing home a much high-volume of 3-pointers.
Before this season and this resurrection, Dieng rarely ventured outside the 3-point line. When he did, it was strictly from the corners. Over the last four seasons (the only ones in which he was attempting from deep at all), 69.1 percent of his triples came from the corner. Overall, just 10.1 percent of his field goal attempts had come from behind the arc over those four seasons. This season, that number has jumped to a whopping 40.3 percent, per Basketball Reference.
Now, instead of being relegated to the odd corner 3-ball, he has become a legitimate pick-and-pop weapon from above the break. He still has a clunky looking shot and a slower-than-ideal release, but give him enough space and he will burn you.
With his newfound shooting prowess, it’s been easy for fans to wonder if he would be the perfect frontcourt partner for Karl-Anthony Towns when he eventually returns from injury. From their first days overseeing the new regime, Saunders and Rosas have been adamant about Robert Covington as the power forward who stretches the floor and provides defensive stability. While he has begun to find his rhythm of late, RoCo is much better suited to a role where he can hound perimeter creators and strangle their influence.
That’s where Dieng could come in. With a 35.8 percent clip from deep, he provides the spacing needed, trumps Covington’s rebounding ability tenfold and allows the former first team all-defense member to do his thing from the small forward slot.
The move would also aid the Timberwolves’ struggle to finish possessions with rebounds and prevent easy second-chance buckets — something they have been unable to achieve with the small-ball lineup. Thus far, Minnesota ranks 22nd in total rebound percentage and defensive rebounding percentage.
The play above has become a reoccurring nightmare for Wolves fans. After Dieng rotates over to cover for an outmatched Covington, the Blazers have time to scoop up a pair of offensive boards and get an easy deuce. With the Towns-Dieng twin tower duo in there, the odds of this happening multiple times a night drastically decrease.
With Covington on the wing, the team is undoubtedly better defensively, but with Dieng behind him protecting the rim they are able to take another leap on that end of the floor. In the last 10 games, all of which Dieng has started, the Timberwolves are the best defensive team in the league. The 100.9 points per 100 possessions they give up is 1.9 points stingier than the second-place Orlando Magic. In that stretch, teams are shooting just 43.5 percent from the field (5th best), scoring 106 points per game (6th) and hitting just 30.1 percent from downtown (1st), per NBA.com.
While some of it is Towns and his defensive clumsiness not being around and the role players — specifically Covington, Shabazz Napier, Kelan Martin and Noah Vonleh — stepping their defensive acumen up to another level, Dieng has been the biggest difference. The veteran has turned from a shot-block chaser to a genuine force in pick-and-roll coverage and at the rim. In the latest update, ESPN ranks him fifth in defensive real plus/minus and 16th overall.
Check out how these two impressive plays in the recent win over the Cleveland Cavaliers. In the first play begins with Collin Sexton backing down Jeff Teague easily. Dieng leaves his man (John Henson) and digs in to force Sexton away from the middle and toward the baseline, then he gets back to Henson to prevent the easy drop-off pass and sticks out his long arms and denies Sexton’s eventual shot.
He follows that up a minute later by retreating back in transition, luring a dashing Sexton into his web with a poking hand and swatting the Cavs guard’s layup attempt.
In pick-and-roll game, he has become a savvy drop scheme servant. In the example below, you can see how his positioning, feet movement and timing with his jump assist him and forces the crafty Spencer Dinwiddie into an off-kilter, off-hand bricked layup.
When Towns does return, Minnesota would be able to stick Dieng in pick-and-roll coverages with the hard-rolling bigs and shifty guards that give KAT problems. The inclusion of the three-level scoring machine will also lift the Wolves’ offense, which has been the complete opposite of their defense over the last 10 outings. They rank 29th in offensive rating and effective field goal percentage and 25th in turnover percentage. Combining Towns with Dieng seems like the most logical way to balance the two sides of the floor and find a happy medium.
It will be interesting to see what Saunders and his coaching staff decide to do. It seems like they don’t want to buck their small-ball system but Dieng provides all the shooting that they need with the added bonus of rebounding and elite defense. Whatever happens, it’s been awesome watching Dieng rise from the ashes and become a legitimate piece to the Wolves puzzle.